European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 9: The Member States

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Debates about the nature of the relationship between the EU institutions and the member states have heated up as the reach of the EU has expanded, and as more Europeans have come to feel its influence.Within their home states, they know approximately what to expect from the relationship between the whole and the parts, but there is much less understanding about the political status of the member states within the EU. As we saw in Chapter 2, the EU has some qualities that are federal, others that are confederal, and yet others that fit none of the mainstream explanations of how power is shared, divided, or expressed. And even if we could agree on how to characterize the EU, it is – like all systems of government or governance – in a constant state of evolution.

The European Coal and Steel Community was a small institution with limited powers in just two fields of policy. The agenda of the European Economic Community expanded to include the single market, as well as agricultural, transport, and trade policy. Since then, there has been almost no field of national public policy on which the EU has not had some impact, whether direct or indirect, obvious or subtle, deliberate or accidental. And yet the jury is still out on the relative balance of powers and authority in most fields of policy; the EU dominates the making of economic, agricultural and environmental policy, and the member states still have a high degree of control over tax policy, policing, education, and criminal justice, but in most areas of policy there is a wide overlap of powers. Future enlargement of the EU will continue to change the relative roles of the EU and the member states.
  • The place of the member states of the EU in international law is unusual, because while they are sovereign states they have also transferred unprecedented amounts of authority to the EU.
  • Guidance on the relative powers of the member states and the EU institutions can be found in the treaties, common policies, and the body of EU law, but in all three cases there are ambiguities.
  • The dynamic of member state/EU relations was once explained by the Community method, but Europeanization has become more popular as an analytical tool, even if there is no agreement on what it means or on its lasting value.
  • Understanding the relative powers and influence of the EU member states is partly a function of how long they have been members, of the size and wealth of their national economies, of their population size, and of their attitudes towards the process of integration.
  • Where once the process of applying to join the EU was relatively simple, it has become more demanding and complex as the reach and effect of integration has expanded.
  • The Copenhagen conditions require that an aspirant member state should be democratic, a free market economy, and willing to adopt the existing body of EU laws and policies and to adapt its administrative structures to fit with the needs of integration.
  • Applicant countries in early 2010 included Albania, Croatia, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey. Countries that face the most challenging barriers to membership include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine