Basically, there are only questions in politics:

Who decides?

Who decides who decides? (These folk ultimately set all the rules and are the final operational source of legitimacy and authority – see Kelsen’s famous hierarchy of norms)

This is what ‘national sovereignty’ is all about. Does your state have its own free voice in decisions directly affecting it? The more so if any decision imposes direct legal obligations?

It’s fair and correct to say that the European Union exists because every member state has expressed its sovereignty by agreeing to EU rules. These rules include mechanisms for taking decisions, plus the creation of a court (ECJ) to impose binding judgements on member states’ legal systems.

What makes the EU unique among international groupings is (a) that many of its decisions are directly legally binding on member states, AND (b) that a member state may not be able to block a decision it does not like. This is because step-by-step the EU has taken on more and more ‘competences’ and then moved more and more of them to ‘qualified majority voting’.

How did this happen? Sovereignty slice by slice:

60 percent – 49 percent

EU        (Thinks: this is the big one. Stay calm and don’t panic) “How nice to see you again. We have an important proposal about the rules. We brought in more club members from Eastern Europe, just as you wanted. Some of them are a bit dodgy, if you ask me. But the problem is now obvious: we now have far too many vetoes.

The time has come to divide issues into those that really matter and those that don’t. We calculate that only 49 percent of issues in this larger club – that you wanted – are important enough to warrant everyone having a veto. We’ve successfully extended voting into many areas in recent times, and life has gone on well enough. So how about another small change? You’ve already accepted voting for 40 percent of issues – another 21 percent won’t really make much difference.

Oh – one other thing. The club court is finding it necessary to interpret some of the rules much more – ahem – flexibly these days. The club’s true vital purposes just can’t be fulfilled otherwise. All these members’ vetoes are jamming everything for everyone! Not everyone is happy about the court, but it’s for the common good which we have all accepted.”

UK        Thinks:  Blimey. I did press to allow in all those new members. The problem is that if we don’t accept this new proposal, the club court may rule against us anyway in some of these areas. Maybe it’s better to accept this and firmly ring-fence the remaining areas and so bring this change under some sort of members’ control?

“I’m really not happy about this, but OK. And no more fiddling with the rules!”

* * *

10 percent – 0 percent

EU        (angrily) “The club Central Committee and Court have decided that the remaining areas open to this so-called veto are no longer acceptable, and are hereby abolished under a wide-ranging rules revision.

Henceforth the club will grow and prosper under rules proclaimed by the Central Committee and Court, the bodies with the club’s true interests at heart. On funding, the Central Committee will wisely decide how much of members’ income goes to the club, and then offer members a wide and generous variety of options for spending the money remaining with them. You may go.”

UK        (angrily) “Hold on! I have my rights! This isn’t fair. It’s NOT what I agreed.”

EU        (sneering) “Do stop rattling your manacles, serf. It’s disturbing our lunch.”

* * * * *

Here’s a summary of what this means back in Brussels. WARNING! It’s confusing. But basically there are different sorts of competence:

The areas over which the EU assumes exclusive competence are:

  • the Common Commercial policy
  • the Common Agricultural policy
  • Fisheries policy
  • Transport policy
  • Competition rules
  • Rules governing the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital.

What is the effect of EU having exclusive competence?

The effect of exclusive competence is profound. It means that Member States no longer have the power to introduce their own legislation in those areas. Member States may only act within the limits of strictly defined management and implementing powers delegated back to the national governments by the EU through the legislation.

If the European Union comes out with legislation in these areas national governments may come out with their own national legislation to implement it, but they may not come out with their own new legislation outside of the EU framework, particularly anything that might conflict with EU law.

So if you are in business, a farmer, in agriculture, a fisherman, or work in the transport sector, much of your regulatory environment is governed by laws initiated by the EU where they hold exclusive competence.

This is why individuals and businesses do need to get involved when laws are being drafted, because if they don’t they may suddenly find that they are bound by highly detrimental new laws and regulations.


Within all this there are different sorts of decisions at different levels. No-one outside a serious expert in these processes can follow what is going on.

The Lisbon Treaty accepted by Blair/Brown in 2007 made a huge step towards more EU decision-by-voting. See the long list of powers/competences that went from consensus/unanimity to QMV here.

Nonetheless, there are important areas of policy-making still (sic) subject to a veto by any member state, including:

  • membership of the Union (opening of accession negotiations, association, serious violations of the Union’s values, etc.)
  • taxation and the finances of the Union (own resources, the multiannual financial framework)
  • harmonisation in the field of social security and social protection
  • certain provisions in the field of justice and home affairs (the European prosecutor, family law, operational police cooperation, etc.)
  • the flexibility clause (352 TFEU) allowing the Union to act to achieve one of its objectives in the absence of a specific legal basis in the treaties
  • the common foreign and security policy, with the exception of certain clearly defined cases
  • the common security and defence policy, with the exception of the establishment of permanent structured cooperation;
  • citizenship (the granting of new rights to European citizens, anti-discrimination measures);
  • certain institutional issues (the electoral system and composition of the Parliament, certain appointments, the composition of the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, the seats of the institutions, the language regime, the revision of the treaties, including the bridging clauses, etc.)

You’ll see that these affect core issues of Money and Identity and how decisions are taken (who decides who decides?). Plus France gets to veto any idea of ending the idiotic expensive perambulations of the European Parliament to and from Strasbourg. And we get to block any ploy to scale back the British Rebate as part of the wider EU Budget haggling.

If any of these policy areas are to be affected by new EU processes and above all by different decision-making, that will have to be done by a new treaty and every member state gets to veto that treaty if it so chooses.

This in turn explains why the Cameron UK Package was so feeble. No-one would agree to change the treaty rules for the UK’s benefit. So we get a series of solemn undertakings that mean next to nothing.

This is long enough. See Part Two.