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The precise status of the European Union in international law has never really been settled, and this applies to its predecessors (the European Economic Community (EEC) and European Community (EC) in particular) as well. What is clear, it seems, is that the Union is not a state as commonly conceived. It lacks its own territory and it lacks a population it can call its own, therewith failing to tick the two formal boxes when it comes to statehood.1 Moreover, the European Union is not generally recognized as a state, even though its attitudes and legal order sometimes suggest that statehood might be a close and reasonably accurate analogy. But if the European Union is not a state, then what is it? The most common classification is that it is an international organization, yet this is often accompanied by the caveat that it is an organization unlike any other. Traditionally, this has been captured in a variety of ways. Thus, for some, the European Union is the archetype of a supranational organization. It is held to be a species of the genus “international organization,” but one where decision making is more centralized than in others and actually takes place not so much between the member states but above them. This claim is then often accompanied by the statement that there is really only one example of such a supranational organization: the European Union.
Abstention, constructive (positive abstention)
As a general rule, all decisions taken with respect to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy are adopted unanimously. However, in certain cases, an EU country can choose to abstain from voting on a particular action without blocking it. This could arise, for example, where the EU proposes to condemn the actions of a non-EU country. Under Article 31 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the country that constructively abstains may qualify its abstention by making a formal declaration.
In that case, it shall not be obliged to apply this decision, but shall accept that the decision commits the EU.
Accession criteria (Copenhagen criteria)
The Treaty on European Union sets out the conditions (Article 49) and principles (Article 6(1)) to which any country wishing to become an EU member must conform. Certain criteria must be met for admission. These criteria (known as the Copenhagen criteria) were established by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993 and strengthened by the Madrid European Council in 1995. They are: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU; ability to take on the obligations of membership, including the capacity to effectively implement the rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law (the ‘acquis’), and adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union. For EU accession negotiations to be launched, a country must satisfy the first criterion.
The Triumph of Intermediary Communities: The Completeness of the Community and the Incompleteness of the Individual
This early medieval world – populated by very few inhabitants, scored with perennial political and social disorder, gnawed at by the constant pangs of hunger, lorded over by untamed nature, and afflicted, as we have seen, by a deep-seated lack of faith in the collective – could not help but have a profound effect at an anthropological level, that is to say on the position and role of mankind in the physical and historical world. One can, therefore, observe the medieval individual’s lack of self-sufficiency and his natural imperfection, his need to bury himself in the bosom of a hospitable and protective community. In a confused and conflict-ridden social reality which lacks the reassurance of a complete political power, the individual has no means of existing peacefully. He will gain it, as we shall see, only with the advent of modernity, when state and individual lives in an arrangement of perfect symbiosis and reciprocity.
Proposed in 2007, the Lisbon Treaty was ratified by most member states in 2008, but a referendum in Ireland-the only country that put the Lisbon agreement to a public vote-rejected it on June 12, 2008, thus jeopardizing the entire treaty. More than a year later, on October 2, 2009, Ireland held a second referendum, which passed. Poland’s government also had expressed reservations, but it ratified the treaty a week after the Irish vote, after securing opt-outs from EU policy on some social issues, such as abortion. The Czech Republic was the last remaining holdout: though its Parliament had ratified the treaty, the country’s president, Václav Klaus, withheld his signature. Finally, after the Czech courts ruled that the treaty did not violate the country’s constitution, Klaus signed it on November 3, 2009. The Lisbon Treaty, thus ratified by all 27 member states, entered into force on December 1, 2009.
While it was not explicitly called a European constitution, the treaty addressed a number of issues that had been central to the 2004 EU draft constitution, an initiative that was scuttled after voters in France and the Netherlands rejected it in 2005. Under the amendments of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Community-which had provided the economic framework upon which the EU was built-disappeared, and its powers and structure were incorporated into the EU. Moreover, the office of a permanent EU president was created, with the president chosen by the leaders of the member countries from a pool of candidates that they had selected. The leader holding this two-and-a-half-year post, officially called the president of the European Council, would provide a “face” for the EU in matters of Union policy. (The rotating EU presidency, whereby each member country assumes a leadership role for a period of six months, was retained, although its mandate would be narrowed.) Another new position, that of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, gathered the EU’s two foreign affairs portfolios into a single office, with the goal of creating a more robust and unified European foreign policy. The power of the European Parliament also was enhanced and its number of seats revised. Additionally, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, initially proposed at the Council of Nice in 2000, entered into force as part of the Lisbon Treaty. It spelled out a host of civil, political, economic, and social rights guaranteed to all citizens of the EU.
Perhaps the most sweeping changes, though, were to the voting mechanisms that determined EU policy. Within the Council of the European Union-the EU’s main decision-making body-the system of qualified majority voting (QMV), previously used only in certain circumstances, was extended to more policy areas, thereby easing the decision-making process. In addition, for most decisions, 55 percent of member states, provided they represented 65 percent of the EU’s population, would be able to approve a measure. This “double majority” voting rule, which represents a simplification of the former system of weighted votes, would be phased in over time. Matters of defense, foreign policy, social security, and taxation would still require unanimous approval, however. While QMV and the “double majority” rule were designed to streamline decision making at the highest levels, critics argued that they would reduce the influence of smaller countries at the expense of larger ones. Partly to address this, the Lisbon Treaty introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative, a process by which EU citizens could directly petition the European Commission (the EU’s main executive body) by gathering one million signatures from a number of member states.
At the time of the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification, the EU was experiencing a period of territorial expansion and economic growth. The debt crisis that would hobble the euro zone economy was still on the horizon, and Bulgaria and Romania had completed the accession process just two years earlier. Little public attention was paid to Article 50 of the treaty, which outlined the provisions under which a country could leave the EU. As the Greek economy spiraled out of control in 2010 and austerity measures failed to slow its descent, EU leaders began to seriously address the possibility of a “Grexit” (“Greek exit”) from the euro zone and the EU. Article 50 dealt with a country’s voluntary separation from the EU, however, and the mechanisms under which a member might be expelled were unclear. Greece ultimately reached an agreement with its creditors and the immediate crisis was averted, but the economic downturn was just one of a series of challenges to befall the EU in the early 2010s.
Russia’s forcible annexation of the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea in 2014 and a migrant crisis that saw hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe helped fuel a growing sense of Euroskepticism. That sentiment manifested most overtly in a June 2016 “in or out” referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the EU. On June 23, 2016, some 52 per cent of British voters chose to leave the EU. British Prime Minister David Cameron immediately announced that he would step down, and EU officials stated that no formal or informal discussions of Britain’s relationship with the EU would begin until the United Kingdom formally initiated Article 50 proceedings.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, pushed ahead with the so-called “Brexit,” but that effort was checked in November 2016 when Britain’s High Court ruled that the government could not trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval. Peers in the House of Lords unsuccessfully attempted to soften the terms of the bill, and Parliament approved May’s “hard Brexit” (which would sever political and economic ties between the U.K. and the EU and restore full border controls between the two entities) on March 13, 2017. On March 29 May submitted a letter to EU Pres. Donald Tusk formally triggering Article 50 and beginning a two-year period of exit negotiations.