What exactly are the powers of the European Union, whose Lisbon Treaty has now been fully ratified and will come into force in December? What policy areas is Brussels responsible for, and which are reserved to the Member States?
This is an important question for the UK and its next government, which claims it will repatriate certain powers to Westminster. And yet it is not altogether easy to find the answer.
The reason is that the powers of the EU have expanded far beyond those which most people – viewing the EU as primarily a trade bloc, which also co-ordinates its members’ actions on some necessarily international issues – would expect it to have.
Indeed, if you look at the original Constitutional Treaty (really just the Lisbon Treaty presented in slightly less tortuous and impenetrable language), you will see that the real scope of the EU’s powers is really quite extraordinary.
Brussels has ‘exclusive competence’ on five issues: the customs union, competition rules, monetary policy in the eurozone, conservation of marine biological resources, and commercial policy. Only the EU may legislate in these areas.
Then there are ‘shared competences’, where member states can act, but only if the EU has chosen not to. These include: the internal market, social policy, economic social and territorial cohesion, agriculture and fisheries, the environment, consumer protection, transport, energy, health and safety, and the ‘area of freedom, security and justice’. International aid, research and development and ‘space’ are also shared competences, but in these cases EU action does not exclude member state action.
There are also areas where the EU has competence to carry out ‘supporting, co-ordinating or complementary action’: the protection and improvement of human health, industry, culture, tourism, education, sport, vocational training, civil protection, etc.
Finally, the EU is also meant to make ‘arrangements’ for the co-ordination of member states’ economic and employment policies, and to carry out ‘initiatives’ to ensure the co-ordination of social policies. It is also meant to define and implement a common foreign and security policy, including the ‘progressive framing’ of a common defense policy.
To put it another way: almost nothing is reserved for member states, and the EU may take action in more or less wherever and whenever it pleases. And I'm pretty sure that's not what we signed up for...