FAQ: A Brief Critical Study of the EU’s Institutions

1 — Why the FAQ?

Whenever elections to the European Parliament loom, as well as during conflicts regarding the future of the European Union, public debates are dominated by countless “experts”—while most of us can do little more than sit and listen. Be it the common market, the Fiscal Compact, the Troika, European economic governance or the possibilities for reforming European treaties, many feel incapable of participating in these debates or developing a political position on these matters. This perception results not only from a lack of knowledge, feelings of powerlessness and a lack of confidence, but also from a very real problem. The EU is a very complex structure composed of institutions, procedures and treaties—however, there are numerous examples of powerful players simply circumventing this structure, thereby revealing the undemocratic face of the EU. At the same time, the impact of EU policies on the lives of member states’ citizens (and all those who lack legal status in the EU) are very concrete and can be felt in every area of life. There are many people who want to participate in EU politics—both internationally and on a grassroots level. And many are already doing so.

Without deluding ourselves as to the nature of the EU, clear analyses and strategic assessments can help bring those interested into the discussions and social debates about a different kind of Europe in a more confident and informed manner—whether in personal conversations, political campaigns or educational work.

"What is required is information on the EU’s central bodies and how they work, as well as knowledge regarding the scope for political action—that is to say, a critical study of the EU’s institutions."

This collection of “FAQs on the EU” seeks to provide just that. It is not an effort to present yet another depiction of which institution does what, or how legislation processes work. Although this represents important basic knowledge, it is not enough by itself. A critical study of the institutions must also raise the question about EU policies’ economic and ideological foundations and whether or how they can be changed—in parliaments, on the street, in communities, and/or in European movements and networks.

The EU currently finds itself in one of its most dire crises so far, the specific causes being highly diverse: the rise of the far right in many European countries, a politics based on austerity forced upon the entire Union, the humanitarian disaster at the EU’s external borders and European national governments’ inability to implement meaningful reforms being just a few. As exemplified by, for example, Brexit, European integration is being called into question. Against the backdrop of these developments, positions on the EU are often highly contested inside left political parties and movements. These positions range from the uncompromising rejection of the EU on account of authoritarian, neoliberal or militaristic policies to the militant call for a democratic, peaceful and social Europe. All too often, these complex standpoints are reduced to a simple “for or against leaving the EU”, at times even a “for or against Europe”. Needless to say, this is not enough. Instead, this paper is intended to contribute to the critical exploration of the possibilities for change, not only via the European parliament, but through local campaigns and actions.

Wenke Christoph and Anne Steckner

2 — The EU represents a community, as is often asserted. But what constitutes this community?

Some of the states in Europe have joined forces to form a union. They have agreed on a common market and currency, as well as on common rules and institutions. Each of the EU member states has thereby surrendered part of its national sovereignty in favour of this common project. This raises the question: what are their benefits of doing so?

The short answer is: EU member countries are more influential as part of a larger structure than they would be by themselves. By itself, hardly any one of the European states would be able to face the world’s major industrial nations like the US or China on an equal footing. As part of a huge common market, however, they are able to step onto the global stage as a major economic actor. Each capital owner that comes to Europe to invest is presented with the prospect of a market of 500 million consumers, with no tariffs or other noteworthy restrictions. The same is true with regard to international trade. The EU is able to act as a major player in trade negotiations, enabling it to achieve trade deals that no individual country could ever secure for itself.

"To its member countries, the EU represents a means for enhancing their international competitive position."

However, this does not suspend the internal competition between EU member states themselves. On the contrary, the single market and the dismantling of trade barriers unleash forces of competition even more fiercely, a process in which entire companies or even whole industries perish. As a result, European global players emerge that are able to compete on the world market.

In sum, the EU represents a set of common rules and institutions regulating inter-state relations between its members, including competition between them. The gains and losses this competition produces are recorded in the accounts of each individual state, with compensatory financial flows being very scarce. This leads to a division of EU countries into relative winners and relative losers, or a centre and a periphery. The winners include creditor states such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, while the losers are debtor states like Greece, Portugal and Spain.

In the long run, this division is bound to undermine the EU’s existence. Naturally, the countries that lose out ask themselves whether the advantages of EU membership outweigh the disadvantages, i.e. whether their submission to EU rules is still paying off. Conversely, winner states also ask themselves whether being in a common union with debtor states does not perhaps represent an excessive burden on them.

Antonella Muzzupappa

3 — How do the main EU bodies work?

Looking at the founding history of the EU’s institutions immediately provides us with the toolkit for investigating it critically. The institutions in which the governments and ministries of the member states first came together to regulate the common market emerged as early as the 1950s: the European Council, the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission. The European Parliament, intended as a representative democratic institution, was only established in 1979.

The European Council is the highest EU body. The heads of state and government of EU member countries meet four times a year at so-called EU summits. The European Council does not pass EU legislation, but articulates fundamental decisions that set the EU’s political course, usually with a consensus among governments.

The Council of the European Union is the body comprising member countries’ ministers. Strictly speaking, there are a total of ten different Councils, pertaining to foreign policy, finance, environmental affairs, etc. The Council of Ministers is responsible for legislation, alongside the Commission and Parliament. Decisions are usually made according to the principle of a double majority: both the majority of individual member countries and the majority of EU citizens represented by them are required. In contrast to more basic EU treaties, legislation has to abide by the principle of unanimity only in matters of foreign and security policy, and tax policy.

"The Commission represents a kind of appointed government complete with a ministerial bureaucracy. It implements EU policy, monitors the application of EU law in member states and is the only EU institution with the right to propose legislation."

The Commission is headed by the Commission President and is made up of a “College” of Commissioners, one per member country. The President is proposed by the European Council and elected by the European Parliament. The Parliament has to approve of the Commission as a whole and can retract approval through a vote of no confidence, a step that has never been taken to this day.

EU citizens elect 751 delegates to the European Parliament every five years. The number of delegates per country depends on the number of inhabitants, ranging from six delegates for Cyprus to 96 delegates for Germany, the most populous country. The legislative process requires approval by the Parliament in almost all matters. The Parliament itself has no right to propose bills, as this so-called right of initiative is reserved exclusively for the Commission (see also FAQ #5).

Alongside these four political institutions, the European treaties led to the creation of three additional institutions vital to the EU: the European Central Bank (ECB), responsible for the monetary policies of countries that adopted the euro. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the highest court of the European Union, intended to guarantee the implementation and identical interpretation of EU laws across the union. Finally, there is the European Court of Auditors (ECA). While all these institutions work relatively independently, their strategic orientation is nonetheless mainly determined by the more powerful member countries.

Wenke Christoph and Konstanze Kriese 

4 — Treaties, regulations, directives—how does the EU’s legislation work?

The European treaties define the goals of the EU, the tasks of its institutions, its decision-making processes and the relations between the EU and its member countries. They are negotiated by representatives from all EU member states and must subsequently be ratified by national parliaments or via referenda in each nation state. Should only one country fail to ratify a law, this is counted as a veto. This principle is a major barrier to changes in the treaties (see also FAQ #13).

Following the European treaties, which constitute the EU’s primary law, legislation is then negotiated between the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament, whose instruments are considered secondary law. This process is guided by specific rules. Regulations represent directly applicable and binding EU laws that must be implemented in an identical fashion in all member countries. Directives, by contrast, oblige member countries to pass laws of their own in order to comply with the overall goal of the regulation. Decisions constitute binding legislative acts applicable to one or more EU countries, enterprises or individuals. They include, for example, EU resolutions concerning the mergers of major corporations. Recommendations and opinions are not legally binding.

The great majority of EU legal provisions are adopted in accordance with the “ordinary legislative procedure”. The Commission proposes a bill, then both the Council of Ministers and the Parliament assess and debate each proposal separately across several readings. Should no agreement be reached after the second reading, “formal trialogue negotiations” within the mediation committee of the institutions are held in order to find a compromise, the result of which is presented again to the EU Parliament.

On the one hand, the EU institutions are indeed more transparent than is often alleged. They even host a website addressing existing myths—for instance, regarding the “curvature of cucumbers”, the supposedly vast number of EU officials and the legend about Germany being the EU’s “paymaster”. On the other hand, the underlying information deficit is substantiated by real and striking democratic shortcomings. These are so grave that the potential to reform the EU institutions is called into question not least by parts of the left. This position is supported, for example, by the trajectory of the “Greek crisis”. An institution lacking democratic legitimacy—the Troika (the EU Commission, ECB and IMF)—led negotiations with the equally unelected Eurogroup, which in turn limited the credit line of a member state and thereby restricted its capacity to act independently to a hitherto unprecedented extent (see also FAQ #8).

"From a left-wing perspective, one thing is certain: the role of the European Parliament within the legislative triad of Parliament, Council and Commission must be strengthened." 

The same applies to direct-democratic mechanisms, such as the European citizens’ initiative. None of this is sufficient, however, if the legislative process does not become more transparent and open to citizens’ participation in general. A first step in this direction would be an obligatory register of lobbyists and the expansion of the EU Parliament’s right of initiative.

Wenke Christoph and Konstanze Kriese 

5 — How democratic are the EU institutions? What possibilities exist to influence them?

The EU’s present shape results from the dominance of powerful actors who are able to enforce and support their interests institutionally particularly effectively. These actors are often powerful corporations, neoliberal-oriented national governments or influential lobbyists for the private business sector. One central set of economic regulations, for instance, is the European economic governance framework, which imposes clear-cut budgetary and economic policies on the EU and Eurozone countries (see also FAQ #7). It is a strict framework for member countries and regards the respective countries’ competitiveness as the benchmark of successful policy. Popular participation is not in any way provided for in this framework.

"The same is true with regard to the formal decision-making processes, where EU citizens have very little opportunity to be heard." 

Three institutions jointly pass EU legislation: the Council of the European Union, the EU Commission and the European Parliament (EP), of which only the latter is directly elected by EU citizens. The members of the Commission are appointed by the member states’ governments and merely confirmed by the EP. Despite its lack of democratic legitimacy, the Commission holds the exclusive right to propose laws. The EP can only modify these proposals retrospectively. To incorporate leftist principles into this process is not an easy task. The Council is comprised of the ministers from each country, meaning that representatives of the executive suddenly become legislators.

Should these three institutions fail to reach an agreement, “formal trialogue negotiations” are initiated to seek a compromise (see also FAQ #4). In practice, this almost always takes place via informal negotiations: representatives of the Commission, the Council and the responsible committee of the EP meet behind closed doors to resolve the issue. In other words: not only the general public, but even most members of European Parliament are excluded from important decision-making processes.

Another important role in EU politics is that of the European Central Bank (ECB). Its main task is the preservation of price stability. Employment and social criteria are not part of its area of responsibility. It can, and is supposed to, act “independently of politics”. Yet this already implies that bankers are able to exert substantial influence on the EU’s economic policies, beyond any democratic control.

Much of this is stipulated by the various EU treaties. Although they amount to a constitution, the EU treaties are far from being neutral in economic terms. Article 119 of the Treaty of Lisbon, for example, demands an “open market economy with free competition”. This effectively renders the rules governing the common market the essence of European integration (see also FAQ #6). Changing this is almost impossible, given that all member countries must approve any modifications to these treaties (see also FAQ #13). Just one of the EU’s many national governments can thereby stall any kind of progress.

Martin Konecny

6 — What are the four basic freedoms of the European Single Market?

The single market is considered the centrepiece of the EU. It comprises four freedoms:

1. Free movement of goods, i.e. no tariffs or other restrictions on imports or exports.

2. Free movement of services, i.e. the freedom of businesses to provide services all over the EU.

3. Free movement of capital and payment transactions.

4. Free movement of persons.

The free movement of persons denotes above all the freedom to live, work and (albeit only for a limited time) search for work in another country. That said, there are many restrictions, such as the exclusion of nationals of foreign EU member states from an entitlement to receive welfare benefits. Correspondingly, for example, unemployed EU citizens who wish to stay in Germany for longer than three months must provide proof of health insurance and sufficient financial means so as to not claim any benefits in the German welfare system.

The free movement of goods in particular has contributed to unleashing competition within the EU. All member countries refrain from implementing any special protective or supportive measures benefiting their own businesses. In return, they provide all European companies with an enormous domestic market. The intensified competition within this market is hoped to promote the formation of large capital units within the EU, which are then able to compete globally on account of their size.

"Moreover, the unified single market, which is the largest in the world today, amounts to an invitation to global capital to invest in Europe."

In addition, the free movement of persons, services and capital increases competition within the European labour force by granting EU businesses unlimited access to the vast European labour reservoir. The free movement of capital allows businesses to invest all over Europe, including establishing production sites in low-wage countries, while the free movement of persons allows the labour force to work abroad. The effect of this is a liberalization of the EU labour market: while every EU citizen has the right to apply for jobs in any of the member states, they are simultaneously faced with the competition from other EU countries within domestic job markets.

The freedom to provide services means that businesses based in low-wage countries can offer their services and compete across the entire EU. For a period of ten years, they were allowed to pay their employees in foreign EU countries according to their own domestic standards. The outcome was, for instance, that construction workers employed by a Polish company and working in Germany received Polish wages, provided they were not below the German minimum wage. The reform of the Posted Workers Directive, however, has restricted this practice. Today, similar conditions apply to both domestic and foreign service providers.

Stephan Kaufmann

7 — What is the Economic and Monetary Union?

The European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is the extension of the European Single Market by a common currency: the euro. Although it was originally thought that all EU members would adopt the euro, in reality only 19 countries did.

Why did these states decide to give up their national currencies and introduce the euro instead? Firstly, the common currency put an end to fluctuations in exchange rates. These fluctuations—e.g. between the Deutschmark and the French franc, Dutch guilder or Italian lira—created permanent uncertainty for European investors and companies. The euro, by contrast, provided a secure basis for calculating cross-border investments and earnings. Correspondingly, a German investor today no longer has to worry that an investment in Italy may lose its value owing to a depreciation of the lira vis-à-vis the Deutschmark.

Secondly, the introduction of the euro created another global currency alongside the US dollar, backed by a major economic power. This “power” of the euro made it attractive for capital investment and led to a reduction of interest rates in the Eurozone: both states and private households, as well as businesses, could now obtain much cheaper loans.

The 19 Eurozone countries gained the advantages of the euro by accepting the criteria designed to keep it stable, hence losing the freedom to take on new (and essentially unlimited) debt. New debt is now not allowed to exceed 3% of a country’s economic output, while the total debt ceiling is 60%. These “convergence criteria” are one element of the European Economic Governance framework, the rules pertaining to the euro countries’ economic and financial policies as overseen by the EU Commission.

During the euro crisis, the countries of the Eurozone further tightened these rules as well as extending them to new areas. Today, there are benchmark values not only with regard to public debt, but for a wide range of economic indices—from unit labour costs to export market shares and unemployment rates. Whenever a member country exceeds these threshold values, the Commission is entitled to demand policy changes at the national level. If a country then fails to comply with such demands, the Commission can impose penalties—albeit requiring the approval of the European Council.

"Given the current system, wage earners in particular pay a high price for their countries’ participation in the common currency." 

Financially weaker states have had to cut spending and increase taxes in order to reduce public debt accumulated during the crisis. In a bid to increase their competitiveness, Eurozone countries lowered minimum wages, curtailed labour rights, and eroded the applicability of collective bargaining agreements. However, the obligation to reduce spending also falls on the governments of the wealthier countries. One example is Germany, where vital public spending is suspended in order to avoid any new borrowing (i.e. to break even, or achieve what is referred to as the “black zero”).


Stephan Kaufmann

8 — What about informal EU bodies such as the Eurogroup or the Troika? Why do they exert such great influence on EU policies?

The EU does not only base itself on EU treaties. Rather, it is a patchwork of institutions, guidelines, and agreements—including those that fall outside the union’s legal structure proper. A substantial number of these were simply set up in disregard of democratic decision-making processes and were codified as EU laws only afterwards. One example of such an extra-legal element is the Eurogroup, an informal, unelected EU committee that coordinates the economic and budgetary policy of the Eurozone. Members of this group are the finance ministers of all the Eurozone countries, as well as the President of the European Central Bank (ECB), and the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro. All negotiations within the Eurogroup are conducted behind closed doors. Although it is not an official EU body and lacks any decision-making authority, the Eurogroup exerted crucial influence to enforce restrictive budgetary policy during the “Greek debt crisis”.

How can this be? The SYRIZA government, led by socialist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, was elected on the promise of resisting “austerity measures” without leaving the EU. Subsequently, it was subjected to massive pressure from both the Troika—another group lacking democratic legitimacy and composed of representatives of the ECB, IMF and the EU Commission—and the Eurogroup. How exactly did this manifest? Towards the end of the conflict surrounding the austerity programme, the Eurogroup simply decided, without the Greek finance minister, against extending the so-called bail-out package for Greece. Usually the Eurogroup’s decisions are passed unanimously, which is why new rules were conjured up overnight. Shortly afterwards, the ECB cut off the cash supply to Greek banks in order to drive the government to its knees. Even conservative legal experts assert that this was not covered by the ECB’s mandate.

The EU’s management of the crisis was subsequently legalised ex post facto in the form of the Fiscal Compact, inspired in no small part by the German “debt brake”. This treaty was agreed outside of the European legal framework, as member states Great Britain and the Czech Republic did not approve. A new binding treaty under international law was swiftly elaborated that made austerity compulsory in 25 EU member countries.

"These examples illustrate the EU’s real power centres: the ECB and the Eurogroup, alongside the EU Council and Commission, and the German government."

Furthermore, it is striking to see how, in the process of managing the euro crisis, governments and state bureaucracies were endowed with comprehensive decision-making powers while parliaments were weakened. Finally, whenever the preservation of the neoliberal order demands, the EU institutions circumvent or even breach established law. Power is exerted via the creation of precedents, unrestrained by democratic legitimacy or accountability.


Anne Steckner and Lukas Oberndorfer

9 — How are the European and municipal levels linked to one another?

Substantial portions of European law directly affect local municipalities. Around two-thirds of local and all environmental legislation are directly or indirectly determined by decisions made in Brussels. There are hardly any areas left in municipal politics that are entirely independent of European law.

Although European law in principle cannot override the constitutionally guaranteed right of local governments to home rule, European law applies on the local level at the same time. Typical examples of this conflation of distinct authorities include: water, gas, and electricity supply, the determination of exhaust values pertaining to local waste incineration, and the establishment of low-emission zones in order to reduce fine particle emissions.

Nonetheless, the EU does not only influence local politics at the legislative level. It also funds EU-wide regional projects. In fact, regional development plans, e.g. in the form of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), constitute the largest individual item in the EU’s current budget period: 351.8 billion out of 1,087 billion euro.

In the current funding period (2014-2020), ERDF funds have become a new focal point. The current aim is to support mainly small and medium-sized enterprises in the areas of low-carbon economy, innovative transportation concepts and communication infrastructure. Furthermore, the transition to a more environmentally friendly economy is to be promoted—for example, through targets concerning the waste cycle or mandatory registration for the approval of chemicals (REACH regulation). Further objectives include the modernization of educational systems and steps towards a more integrative society. In less developed regions, the current goal is to compensate for geographic disadvantages through growth and employment.

These funds are often used quite sensibly. However, during the EU’s next budget period (2021-2027), they might fall by the wayside in favour of a financial tool called the “Connecting Europe Facility” (CEF). This fund is intended to provide, among other things, for making roads and bridges suitable for tanks and heavy armour so as to allow for military transport and the swift deployment of troops.

"Instead of expanding urgently required investment to reduce the enormous socio-economic imbalances between regions, funds for military mobility are being boosted within the EU’s financial framework."

Another important question is how regional actors can better be involved in the design and implementation of the ERDF (see also FAQ #15). Local governments are often unable to cope with its bureaucratic requirements and co-payments, while the elaboration of development strategies is increasingly centralised. These barriers must be greatly reduced and the role of municipalities strengthened so that subsidies are actually channelled to where they are most urgently needed.


Felicitas Weck

10 — In what way(s) is the EU involved in awarding public contracts?

Every year, the public purse at the federal, regional and local level in Germany awards contracts to private businesses worth hundreds of billions of euros. This procurement process is governed by EU regulations. Procurement law is to ensure that environmental, social, and labour law–related requirements are observed in the provision of public services. Procurement regulations are specified by EU statutory provisions, national legislation, collective bargaining agreements, and international laws. Regulating procurement as transparently as possible makes sense, not least in order to prevent corruption and nepotism.

The awarding of public contracts occurs in accordance with the appropriate legislation. In Germany, this is state law, which in turn is based on EU law. The latest revision of the relevant regulations in 2014 helped strengthen social and ecological criteria in particular. In this sense, the new procurement law represents a step forward, since municipalities are no longer forced to award a contract to the bidder offering the lowest cost. For example, construction materials used must now meet certain ecological standards. Municipal authorities are no longer obliged to award contracts to a bidder that are cheap but do not use construction materials that meet the stipulated criteria.

"The use of tax money should not be guided by the principle of 'tight is right'."

This is definitely a step in the right direction. The use of tax money should not be guided by the principle of “tight is right”, but instead by the interests of wage earners and consumers. However, procurement law could still be substantially improved in many respects. Important demands include the consideration of minimum wages or wages based on collective bargaining agreements, as well as the possibility to restrict public tenders regionally, instead of having to consider bids from all over Europe.

At a more fundamental level, public goods and services must be accessible to all inhabitants of the EU, regardless of their income or social status. The best way to achieve this is to preserve and strengthen (and, if need be, reclaim for the state) municipal public utility companies. For instance, if a municipality owns its sewage disposal facility, there is no need to put this service out to tender and award it to private businesses. Given the tendency to privatize public infrastructure (as is strongly promoted by the EU), re-municipalization is a political decision. It helps increase the local population’s influence on the provision of utilities inside their own community, instead of seeing this handed over to private businesses.


Felicitas Weck

11 — While some praise the EU as a project of peace, others criticize its militarization and neoliberalism. Which narrative is true?

There is more than one European Union narrative. One of the most powerful is that of the “European peace project”, i.e. efforts to rule out the possibility of war inside Europe following the horrific experience of two world wars. Despite criticism of the EU, this argument is still very plausible to many. In 2012 the EU actually received the Nobel Peace Prize on the grounds that it had contributed to the promotion of reconciliation, democracy, and human rights for more than 60 years. Since 1945, there have been no wars between EU member countries.

That said, European integration is not only about peaceful coexistence. What is more, the image of a “peace project” must be called into question, especially when taking into consideration the EU’s worldwide conduct and its rapidly rising armaments expenditure in recent years. The new EU defence fund is set to provide seven billion euro annually for military spending (see also FAQ #9). The EU also supplies arms to the rest of the world.

"In Germany alone, arms exports worth 6.5 billion euro were approved in 2017."

Furthermore, the establishment of the European Economic Community was linked to the Cold War. Western Europe was to be built up as a capitalist counterpart to the Eastern power bloc. The economic integration of European countries was key to this effort.

Which actors and interests, then, actually drove European integration forward? Distinct stages can be identified. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Western European countries saw high economic growth rates and wage increases, strong trade unions and social-partnership approaches. During these early years, the gradual liberalization of trade between European countries was the priority. Yet, as a result of the oil price crisis in 1973 and the subsequent economic crisis, this pattern of integration itself encountered a crisis.

Starting in the 1980s, neoliberal actors were increasingly able to implement their ideas about European integration. Their agenda was to gradually open up Europe to the globalised world economy and reduce any “impediments to competition”—namely, the welfare state and the influence of trade unions (see also FAQ #2). They aimed at restructuring all areas of society in favour of an orientation towards competition, even against the objections and resistance of many member countries. The supra-national European level was very well-suited to the enforcement of the neoliberal project: weak institutions, a poorly organized civil society, few parliamentary control mechanisms, and the over-representation of lobby interests. Anti-social policies were far easier to introduce at this level. Today, neoliberal rules and regulations are codified in the Economic and Monetary Union, the Maastricht Treaty, and the Stability and Growth Pact (see also FAQ #7).


Wenke Christoph

12 — What about the notion of a social Europe?

Throughout the gradual formation of the European Union (see also FAQ #11), neoliberal policies have been incorporated into the various treaties. Promoting neoliberalism has hence become one of the institutions’ central missions: unbounded trade within the EU, the curtailing of democratic procedures through which member countries determine their budgetary policies and the liberalization (which often means privatization) of public services. Social policy has never been “harmonized” among EU countries. Rather, it has been subjected to economic objectives and, in many cases, restricted to voluntary coordination instead of being established in binding regulations. Social policy is in this sense no more than an embellishment to a neoliberal core. The “European Pillar of Social Rights”, widely advertised in 2017, does not change anything about this: the primacy of competition is not in any way called into question, nor does it imply any legally binding standards or social rights for EU citizens.

The question remains of what will come of the notion of a social Europe? The major steps towards integration during the 1990s and 2000s occurred at a time when social democratic actors and trade unions had already been substantially weakened. In fact, at the time, the Social Democrats even believed—led by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder—that economic liberalization and higher profits would ultimately benefit everyone. Moreover, in 2012, ECB President Mario Draghi declared the European social model a failure. In the context of crisis management, the EU’s dominant member countries established an austerity regime that enforced privatization, social cuts and the curtailing of labour rights, thereby dismantling welfare states more generally, particularly in the crisis-ridden countries of southern Europe.

Considering its history and the actors involved, the EU was and is more than just an association of the powerful. The EU’s claim to being a peace project (see also FAQ #11) and the notion of a social Europe have led many actors, including those on the left, to get involved in European politics. For the time being, however, the changing character of the integration process indicates that neoliberal actors have been largely successful in implementing their agenda and projects in the form of deregulation, privatization, and boosting competitiveness.

"However, European integration is a fiercely contested battlefield, in which progressive actors can also gain major victories."

Nothing would be easier than simply sitting back and abandoning the European Union as a place for leftist politics. However, European integration is a fiercely contested battlefield, in which progressive actors can also gain major victories. The reform of the Posted Workers Directive is just one example of this: trade unions and left-wing forces within the European Parliament were able to curb wage and social dumping substantially and to strengthen labour rights. Furthermore, the EU is not an external enemy from which we could rid ourselves simply through secession. One cannot exit from existing economic and political integration, flows of goods and a common currency and expect to regain room for manoeuvre that supposedly existed in the past. Membership or withdrawal is in this sense a false alternative.


Wenke Christoph

13 — Why is it so difficult to change the rules of the EU?

In the numerous institutions and treaties that underlie the EU, local, regional, national and supra-national levels are intertwined in a highly complex structure. Legal procedures are difficult to disentangle, and Brussels remains rather abstract for many people. Only those who know their way around the EU legal jungle are able to put forward propositions that actually correspond to the existing contractual framework. This leads to a juridification and bureaucratization of the entire debate and prevents any real participation from below.

It is hence almost impossible to rewrite the existing EU treaties in terms of progressive policies, let alone restate them altogether. The procedure laid down by Article 48 of the Maastricht Treaty stipulates that any changes to the agreement require the approval of each member country. Consequently, all heads of state and government, as well as the European Parliament, would have to approve such changes, which would still have to be ratified by all member states in accordance with their constitution. In other words: the veto of just one country can prevent even the slightest modification. Just one tiny neoliberal stronghold is sufficient to block meaningful change—even if this were contrary to the will of the overwhelming majority of the European population.

"In other words: the veto of just one country can prevent even the slightest modification."

Adding to this is the fact that there are, of course, various interests inside each nation state. Within the European Council, however, these must be consolidated into one national stance as represented by the respective government. Hence, French workers have to share their voice with French landowners and corporations, instead of joining forces with German or Polish wage earners. This bottleneck of the nation state produces horizontal axes of conflict: “The Germans/Austrians/Belgians” allegedly have to foot the bill for “the Greek/Portuguese/Irish”. Vertical axes of conflict, i.e. class antagonisms, gender and race hierarchies, and other relations of domination inside national societies are thereby rendered invisible.

The assessment of the existing treaties defining many of the essential EU institutions as undemocratic or anti-social raises the question of a calculated breach of these rules. The small country of Portugal, for instance, has in fact resisted the Troika’s austerity plans, reversing some of them and instead investing public funds, thereby reinvigorating its economy. Such breaches, and those going even further, are not least a question of power. The chance of changing existing rules increases to the same extent that resistance forms within society, people get involved in the process through action, and the conflict inside the EU is openly addressed. The result could be the establishment of a force from below that could change policies for the better.


Anne Steckner and Lukas Oberndorfer

14 — The EU appears to be an out-of-touch apparatus in distant Brussels…

Many local policies are today determined by the EU. You only have to consider the roaming rates for mobile phones to come across consumer protection rules, or run a water tap to encounter the EU Water Framework Directive.

At the same time, it is obvious that global challenges such as climate protection, a humane asylum policy, the social-ecological turn and fair digitalization cannot be tackled at the national level alone. Similarly, cooperation with third countries, international trade relations and peaceful conflict resolution require a shared European approach.

On the other hand, many political decisions can much better be made at a regional or local level, despite the sensible integration of European structural policy. Local municipalities and communities know best where problems and development potentials lie, regardless of whether they constitute urban metropolitan areas, rural areas, or typical border regions. Some have to combat high rates of housing vacancy owing to an outflow of population, others are grappling with reining in investors who drive rents up. Maintaining social balance ultimately requires highly distinct political approaches.

"A certain degree of local autonomy need not necessarily contradict European policies."

A certain degree of local autonomy need not necessarily contradict European policies. This is all the more true when considering that, often enough, national governments are responsible for blocking beneficial solutions at the European level. An expanded European public is hence required, not least in large member countries such as Germany and France. Time and again, it is these countries’ governments that resort to the narrative of “distant Brussels” in order to distract from their own failures, or indeed their own role in Brussels. This game of political hide-and-seek has contributed to the Brexit decision.

The EU’s policies are determined by the member countries’ governments inside the European Council (see also FAQ #3) to a significant extent, especially since the financial crisis of 2008. For instance, the German government decreed devastating austerity for other countries through what is called the Stability and Growth Pact—and, in the case of Greece, through the essentially illegitimate Troika (see also FAQ #8). Instead of focusing on Brussels, the role of the German government within European politics ought to be analysed, including the German finance minister’s stonewalling with regard to tax evasion. If the EU is to change, the influence on majority formation within the member states is just as crucial as the political efforts undertaken in Brussels or the regions.


Konstanze Kriese

15 — So, should politics be controlled locally?

The intertwinement of policies in cities and regions with European policies is multi-faceted. It is expressed via the representation of regions inside the European institutions and, at the same time, via EU policies’ influence on municipalities.

One important link between the local and the European level is the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), comprising members of state and regional governments, and mayors and representatives of districts, provinces, and municipalities. The CoR comments on major EU measures. Its reports and statements contain much valuable information from and many lessons learned in European regions. However, it does not really have a right to be heard or participate in decision-making. All it can do is express its opinion. In order to expand democratic processes across Europe and strengthen citizens’ participation vis-à-vis decisions made in Brussels, this committee would have to be developed into a municipal chamber endowed with legislative rights.

One major problem are the sanctions that Brussels is entitled to impose in the context of granting regional and structural development funding (see also FAQ #9). Time and again, attempts are made to tie regional policies to national obligatory “debt brakes” as stipulated at a European level by the Stability and Growth Pact. In this way, regions can be punished if their governing bodies fail to implement austerity measures. This completely misguided method of imposing sanctions through the allocation of subsidies becomes even more absurd when compliance with the rule-of-law is made a prerequisite for entitlement to such funding. It can result in a refugee relief organization in Hungary being punished for the policies pursued by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and denied EU funding. This stands in stark contrast to regional self-determination in social, cultural, and economic matters.

"One encouraging example of local and regional leftist policy are those “rebellious” and “solidary” cities that develop local alternatives to both the EU’s and various national governments’ inhumane and anti-social policies."

They declare themselves sanctuaries, advocate for safe migration routes and the acceptance of refugees, and link this to a politics of solidarity on the local level. Many of these cities have formed an EU-wide network. In this sense, cities’ direct access to funding for municipal integration and social infrastructure would be a first step in the right direction. Above all, however, municipalities and cities can play an important role in resisting, and developing alternatives to, authoritarian-neoliberal policies emanating from the European and/or national level. Examples of this include the (more than 2,000) TTIP-free zones and the successful re-municipalization of public utilities.


Konstanze Kriese

16 — What’s the point of voting in European elections?

Some say that if elections really changed anything, they would have been made illegal long ago. Others say that elections are the democratic expression of the voice of the people. The matter is more complex, however. The European Parliament (EP) is the only one of the EU’s bodies that is directly elected. Within this power structure, the question of how many people actually turn out for elections is anything but irrelevant, as it represents a yardstick for the legitimacy of, and support for, the work of the EU’s institutions. That said, a high election turnout does not in any way strengthen the EP as an institution. If voter turnout is low right-wing and fascist parties are able to benefit, provided they mobilise their followers to the election booth—which they have successfully achieved more recently. The consequence of this is that they are reshaping Europe according to their agenda. Election results are a compact expression of social forces. Election turnout reveals a social imbalance: people with precarious employment, low income, and lower degrees of education do not often participate in elections. People who are better off socially and economically, by contrast, do so in much larger numbers. The latter’s interests are therefore reflected more strongly.

Delegates of left-wing parties inside the European Parliament have formed the European group GUE/NGL (Gauche Unitaire Européenne/Nordic Green Left). They comprise 52 members of parliament (MEPs) from 14 countries, including Die Linke. GUE/NGL delegates represent diverse positions on questions of EU policy. What unites them is the common vision of a socially just, peaceful, and sustainable process of European integration.

"Election results are a compact expression of social forces."

Generally, parliamentary groups inside the EP consist of members of the associated European parties. This also applies to Die Linke. The European Left (EL) has existed since 2004. Today, 25 parties with a total membership of 500,000 people have joined the EL. Not all members of the GUE/NGL are affiliated to the EL or vice-versa. The EL is not confined to parties inside the European Union, but also includes parties from Switzerland, Turkey, and Moldova.

For a long time, an informal “grand coalition” of European conservatives and social democrats has dominated the EP. The parliamentary legislative procedures further bolster these two major parties’ dominance. On the other hand, the EP neither has a coalition “government” or programme nor any obligation to vote in accordance with party platforms, resulting in many decisions relying on changing majorities. As a result, even smaller parliamentary groups such as the GUE/NGL can successfully submit proposals (see also FAQ #18).

This requires cooperation with extra-parliamentary movements and well-organised PR. The EU-wide campaign against the TTIP free-trade agreement, for instance, received support from left-wing delegates. Yet without NGOs, activists and trade unions, who organized EU-wide networks and protests against TTIP, the agreement would have long become a tragic reality (see also FAQ #17).


Timo Kühn

17 — What can I do personally to change the EU, apart from casting my vote?

Given the entrenchment of employer interests within the EU institutions, elections only have a limited effect. Although left-wing MEPs are able to achieve certain victories (see also FAQ #18), extra-parliamentary pressure on the EU’s power centres is imperative. As many decision-making processes are heavily influenced by corporate lobbying, this supremacy can only be countered through popular organization from below.

This requires strategic choices to focus on those projects that affect the everyday lives of a majority in a way that disrupts the increasingly authoritarian-neoliberal development of the EU. What is needed are broad alliances between a whole range of different actors. One example illustrating how this can be successful is the movement against TTIP. The free-trade agreement with the United States represented one of the EU Commission’s and employers’ central projects. Today, it is history (see also FAQ #16). This agreement certainly was not thwarted by Donald Trump, but by the determined resistance of millions of ordinary people both in Europe and the US. Civil society organizations such as Attac, trade unions, environmental associations, consumer organizations, smallholders, and many others seized the initiative to stop TTIP early on.

"The free-trade agreement with the United States represented one of the EU Commission’s and employers’ central projects. Today, it is history because of a broad social civil engagement." 

The protest against TTIP brought together parties with various grievances: citizens insisting that their food be healthy and not contain toxicants, trade unionists defending labour rights, communities trying to preserve what little scope for action they still have, etc. The resistance was based on a network extending across Europe and was not only directed at the EU, but applied wherever it was most effective, such as against national ministers or parliaments. A broad range of actions were successfully combined. Millions of people signed the petition against TTIP and CETA and hundreds of thousands marched on jointly organized European days of action. In Brussels, activists stalled negotiation rounds through civil disobedience. Intelligent media PR rendered TTIP a “toxic topic” in many countries. Heads of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) denounced the alleged blessings of TTIP. The Commission was forced to make one concession after another, to the point that their position eventually became unacceptable for the US government. Even before Trump’s election, TTIP had essentially been defeated.

Although the Commission attempted to present the protests as anti-European, the anti-TTIP movement contributed to the emergence of a pan-European civil society more than any official EU policy.

TTIP is not the only example of successful resistance. Similarly, the EU Commission’s plans to subject the drinking water supply to the rules of the single market, and thus to the pressure of privatization, was successfully prevented by a broad coalition. These victories occurred thanks to social forces united beyond social and geographical boundaries, and willing to disobey existing rules.


Martin Konecny

18 — What has left-wing politics been able to achieve in the EU so far?

Although it does not come easily, success is possible. For example, leftist positions were successfully incorporated into the EP’s official positions in cross-party parliamentary proposals concerning a new, humane common asylum policy, the protection of whistle-blowers, and in the debate on copyright law and a fair international trade policy. Furthermore, left-wing MEPs managed to include an escape clause in the EU’s Temporary Agency Work Directive, which obliges member countries to pass laws ensuring that temporary labour forces receive the same pay as permanent staff from day one. Yet how did Germany respond? The Temporary Agency Work Directive was implemented to the effect that temporary staff receive the same pay only after 18 months. This is a telling example of how the specific national balance of forces determines the implementation of European directives.

"The task of left-wing MEPs in this context is to amplify extra-parliamentary voices both in parliament and the media."

There are other areas where left-wing MEPs assume a critical minority position in the parliament, particularly when speaking out against armament, Macron and Merkel’s plans for a European army, and the lack of oversight regarding arms exports. This is also true with respect to the criticism of ongoing tax avoidance and the EU’s undemocratic financial policy, which has been an unresolved problem since the financial crisis of 2008. The task of left-wing MEPs in this context is to amplify extra-parliamentary voices both in parliament and the media. The participation of the Left in the special committee on the so-called Lux Leaks and the Committee of Inquiry into Emission Measurements in the Automotive Sector helped reveal grave shortcomings in existing European policy. The inquiry found that the fraud committed could have been prevented, but that crucial political regulations failed to have an effect. One outcome of the Lux Leaks inquiry is that the EU Commission must finally lay down binding measures for the protection of whistle-blowers.

None of this can be achieved through committee and parliamentary work alone. The task at hand is to specify topicstogether with NGOs and other civil society organizations and associations—for hearings, expert discussions, publications, etc., and then to publicize findings thoroughly over a period of several years, particularly outside of the parliamentary context. Here, continuous cooperation is crucial, including with representatives and interest groups on the regional level.

Such a multi-track approach to left-wing European politics also places the undemocratic state of the EU’s institutions on the agenda (see also FAQ #17). Given that this democratic deficit causes many people to be (justifiably) sceptical of the EU, a well-connected New Right is attempting to capitalise on this across Europe. This makes it all the more important to engage in the social debates with visionary, leftist European politics and concrete political projects, such as a European unemployment insurance policy.


Konstanze Kriese

Futher Reading:


  • Wenke Christoph is a senior research fellow at the Europe Unit of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
  • Stephan Kaufmann works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.
  • Martin Konecny works for the trade network Seattle to Brussels and is an editor at the Mosaik-Blog.
  • Timo Kühn is the office director of the Member of the European Parliament Martin Schirdewan. Previously, he worked as an editor in the DIE LINKE Group and was employed in the Bundestag.
  • Konstanze Kriese is a cultural scientist and is currently working for the MEP Martina Michels in the European Parliament, with a particular focus on culture, media, web policy, copyright and EU-Turkey relations. She runs her own blog, a small archive of political essays and textswww.kasonze.de.
  • Antonella Muzzupappa is a senior research fellow for Political Economy at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
  • Lukas Oberndorfer is a research associate of the EU & the International of the Labor Chamber (legal representation of the interests of employees in Austria).
  • Anne Steckner is a political educator for Die Linke as well as other left-wing organizations and groups.
  • Felicitas Weck is an advisor of the federal-state coordination of the DIE LINKE Group and active local politician in the city council of Langenhagen.