UCL European Institute


How Europe shapes British Public Policy

07 May 2013, 12:00 am

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Prof Janice Morphet
May 2013

Much of the public and media discourse on the influence of the EU on the UK is focussed on regulations at the point of implementation This is frequently accompanied with the implied underlying narrative that these regulations have somehow been 'imposed', have arrived without any previous discussion and that the UK has taken no part in their passage through the process. The UK is frequently characterised as a 'victim' with no control or influence over the direction of policy or its detail.

What is most surprising is that after over forty years of membership of the EU, that there is no greater understanding of the EU policy processes and how they are implemented in the UK. Why has this occurred and will some of the current efforts to be more open about negotiations contribute to this debate in the future?

Looking back at the discussions in Parliament during the period of negotiation for entry into the EU before 1972, it is clear that the implications of pooling policy competencies with other member states for the operation of UK sovereignty were understood. Indeed this is a fundamental principle of pooling powers with other states - policies can only be decided in one place. But by the time that Lord Cockfield came to negotiate the Single European Market in 1986, he was dismayed to find that neither the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher nor Parliament had any clear understanding of how the EU worked and the implications for the UK. Worse, in his opinion, Parliament seemed to know little and care less. How did this state of affairs arise and how does it influence current public understanding of UK EU relations.

There are three key factors at work that have contributed to this position and maintained this external distancing between domestic and EU policy processes. The first has been the decision in Whitehall to internalise strategic EU policy making within the UK's centralised processes. This has been regarded as a strength by some member states, where more entrepreneurial approaches between competing ministries have prevailed . On the other hand, this Whitehall process has not been sensitive to changes within negotiating styles in other member states, where more fluid and flowing negotiation have been more productive to their interests than pre-agreed positions on single issues.  This 'domestication' of EU policy within the UK has submerged debate and led to a lack of understanding in civil society.

The second factor has been the length of time taken for negotiation of any specific EU policy, which as recent Parliamentary evidence has shown, can take up to 20 years . This extended negotiation period is seen to be helpful within the EU as a whole, providing the benefit of 'institutionalised time'  that crosses electoral cycles and maintains some continuity. In the UK, the constitution and machinery of government works within the cycles of an elected government, each one taken separately and unable to bind its successor, where legislation can be changed and treaties renegotiated. This is in stark contrast to the EU, where the major policy programmes are set by Treaties that provide the framework for budgets allocations, programmes and accompanying legislation. Although the detail is always subject to negotiation there is a commitment to the longer term and overarching direction set in a treaty that is equal to the election of a Government in the UK. The culture of episodic UK government and the flow of EU strategic policy commitments sit in sharp cultural distinction.

The third factor has been the camouflaging of the EU policy within the UK. Although with regulations this is not possible, other agreements on transport, the environment and more fundamentally on issues such as subsidiarity have been incorporated within the UK in ways that have not been linked to EU agreements. The growing strength of the application of the EU principle of subsidiarity, from the single European Act, to the Maastricht Treaty to Lisbon in 2009 has been delivered through changes in the sub-state governance in the UK. After 1992, local government reform in Scotland and Wales created a platform for devolution in 1999. Applying subsidiarity in England was more problematic for Whitehall. Dysfunctional processes of local government reorganisation and Government offices of the regions were established to delay transfer of responsibilities. The final implementation of subsidiarity in the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 meant that these Government offices had to go and local government has been provided with powers of general competence.

So for Whitehall, much of the effort has been on incorporation of EU policy within the UK. Finding a domestic narrative for an agreed EU policy that fits with prevailing government ideology frequently seems to be the most important intellectual challenge. Becoming more overt about these processes may raise the spectre of why it has not been known before and secondly, the political implications of pooled powers. None of this seems likely to be set within the wider EU constructs.  The EU debate in coming years may do something to widen public understanding of the UK's membership of the EU but it will be hard to make up such a long shortfall in understanding.

1. Bulmer, S. and M. Burch, (2009) The Europeanisation of Whitehall UK Central Government and the European Union, Manchester, Manchester University Press.
2. Evidence form Gisela Stuart MP to House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee 13 February 2013
3. Goetz, K. H. and H-H. Meyer-Sayling, (2009) Political time in the EU: dimensions, perspectives, theories, Journal of European Public Policy, 16:2, 180-201