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The flags of the EU and its member states are displayed before the start of an EU summit in Brussels. © Shutterstock
European countries have been working closely together for around 70 years now. What started on a small scale – 6 countries including Belgium – is nowadays a sizeable European Union (EU) with 27 Member States. The European Union in its current form is active in an extremely large number of fields and a considerable portion of Belgian legislation is based on EU regulations. The EU therefore affects us individually on many different levels of our daily lives.
Yet the EU remains somewhat invisible to many. Most of the information we read in the press focuses on the difficult road towards reaching a workable compromise between 27 Member States. Behind the scenes, however, the EU is working hard to improve a great many aspects of our lives. In this educational document, we want to give you a small insight into what the EU means to us.
The Member States of the European Union have now lived together in peace for over 70 years. We have become so used to this that we take it for granted, but we must not forget that the EU is a product of two bloody World Wars. Or even three, if we include the clash between France and Germany in 1870.
The main purpose of the early European economic cooperation after World War Two was to prevent conflicts. Because if countries trade with each other, they become economically dependent on each other and are therefore less inclined to enter into conflict, the founders argued. Looking back in the year 2021, we can say that they succeeded in their mission.
The EU has made a strong commitment to productive agriculture. Photo: Landscape with sunflowers, lavender and beehives in Provence (France). © iStock
For centuries, European countries were ravaged by famines, but thanks to European cooperation, that is no longer the case. After all, one of the cornerstones of that cooperation was a ‘common agricultural policy’. In 2016, 38% of the EU budget (€61 billion) continued to be invested to support farmers in the sustainable production of food.
Recently, more attention has also been paid to environmentally friendly and climate friendly agricultural practices and the EU has been encouraging healthy lifestyles. For example, the EU's farm-to-fork strategy calls for at least 25% of farmland in the EU to be used for organic farming by 2030.
Stronger together and a pioneer worldwide
The world stage is dominated by major powers such as the US and China and other large emerging countries such as India are also gradually working their way towards becoming world powers. If they acted separately, the individual countries of Europe could only play a minor role within this global system, but by working together as a European Union consisting of 27 Member States (and 446 million inhabitants in 2018), they can certainly have an impact. For example, the total EU economy – based on gross domestic product – makes up 16% of the global economy, compared to China (16.4%) and the US (16.3%)(2017). As a trading bloc, the EU can negotiate more advantageous trade agreements with other countries or regions.
But the EU can also make its voice heard on other levels and can even lead the way. For example, the EU is showing significant ambition with regard to our climate, in the form of its Green New Deal and its aim is to spur other countries on to greater ambition.
The EU was also the first to enact strict rules on privacy, the famous GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation. The US is now gradually adopting these rules to avoid confusion from arising due to the existence of different sets of rules.
As a union, the EU is managing to curb the gradually unbridled power of internet giants such as Facebook and Google. An individual country such as Belgium would be totally powerless in that regard.
Finally, the EU also defends certain values and standards, and disseminates them throughout the world. These include freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, the rule of law, gender equality, but also regulations on animal testing and food safety and the fight against child labour and environmental pollution.
Greater prosperity and well-being
Le marché intérieur unique favorise les échanges mutuels entre les États membres et accroît ainsi notre prospérité à tous. L'euro, la monnaie commune à 19 États membres, présente également des avantages pour les entreprises. Elles peuvent ainsi facilement effectuer des paiements dans d'autres pays de la zone euro. Les prix sont clairs et ne nécessitent pas de conversion.
En outre, l'UE prend de nombreuses mesures en faveur de la croissance et de l'emploi, sans pour autant perdre de vue le bien-être des citoyens qui passe, entre autres, par la culture, une alimentation saine, l'environnement, l'éducation, le sport et les soins de santé.
The European Parliament in Brussels. © Shutterstock
Brussels, the capital of Europ
Brussels is called the capital of Europe. For example, 38 EU organisations have their headquarters or a liaison office in Brussels. These include the main EU institutions such as the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission.
This therefore means that more than 37,000 EU employees are based in our country. Clustered around those institutions are some 11,700 interest groups and individual lobbyists, along with hundreds of journalists and over 7,600 diplomatic staff.
Because Brussels is also home to other international institutions (such as NATO), it is difficult to determine the exact impact that the EU has on the Belgian economy. However, the overall impact of international and European institutions and lobbies is estimated at 8.7 to 13.9 billion euros and between 123,000 to 163,000 jobs (2020) and we can say that the EU is responsible for a significant proportion of that.
Benefits for the citizen
Of course, the previous benefits also have their impact on the lives of every one of us. At this point, however, we want to list some of the specific benefits that affect us as individual citizens in our daily lives, though this list is certainly not exhaustive!
Freedom to travel
COVID-19 is holding us back for now, but hopefully that will end soon, because the EU provides the luxury of easy and safe travel throughout the entire EU. The Schengen Agreement abolished border controls between 16 European countries. This means that you can cross borders without having to show a passport or ID.
What is more, you do not have to pay roaming charges on your mobile phone. You can make payments using your Belgian euros in 19 countries. Your credit card transaction fees are the same everywhere and your driving licence is valid everywhere. The EU is also working on a high-performance rail network for climate-friendly travel within the EU.
The EU provides the luxury of easy, safe and sustainable travel throughout the EU. But also to study, work, live... © iStock
Freedom to study
The Erasmus+ programme enables every EU young person to study, train, volunteer or take part in an exchange programme in 33 countries inside and outside Europe.
Freedom to work
As an EU citizen, you have the right to work in another EU country, whether as a volunteer, an intern, a self-employed person or an employee. The EU will even help you find the right job opening. Thanks to EU legislation, you are always covered by a social security system. The EU also defined your rights as a worker right down to the smallest detail, such as your right to 4 weeks' holiday or to benefits if you lose your job as a worker.
Freedom of residence
It goes without saying that going to live in any other EU country is easy. Wherever you are in the EU, you have a right to a basic internet connection. And as an EU citizen, you can use the public health services of any other EU country under the same conditions as the residents of that country.
Freedom to do business
The internal market means that the EU forms a single, large zone in which you can start up a business anywhere. You can offer your products or services to all 446 million consumers in the EU. Goods, people and capital can move freely between all EU countries. The EU offers coaching, funding and internships for budding entrepreneurs.
The EU makes doing business easier, among other things because you can pay with euros in 19 countries. © Shutterstock
A healthy environment
The EU protects the environment by law. That is how the EU ensures that our drinking water is safe and our favourite swimming and rowing spots are clean. Through its Natura 2000 programme, the EU maintains 26,000 protected natural areas, which together cover almost a fifth of the area of the EU. The EU also tackles air polluters.
Consumer goods that are sustainable and safe
As a consumer in an EU country, you have a right to fair treatment: from the repair or replacement of your goods if they break down within two years and protection from misleading advertising to the ability to change your mind about an online purchase within 14 days.
The EU is also moving away from a throwaway society and is progressing towards a green, sustainable circular economy. From now on, products must last longer and be easy to repair, reuse or recycle. To protect our oceans, the EU has also banned the use of disposable plastic.
Climate change is putting a severe damper on our future. That is why the EU is pursuing ambitious targets in connection with our climate and, with its Green New Deal, is a world leader in the fight against climate change. One of the ways it is doing this is by investing heavily in renewable energy, sustainable transport, urban greenery and other things besides.
It is also investing a large sum of money – €30 billion in 2020 and 2021 alone – in technologies that will make our lives more sustainable. For example, by reducing CO2 emissions and reusing our existing raw materials.
We are fortunate to live on a safe continent. And that isn't only because the EU, as an institution, has helped the Member States to live together in peace for over 70 years. The EU is also making efforts to ward off threats from the outside world. It does so by resolving conflicts and promoting mutual understanding on an international level.
Considerable attention is devoted to the EU's neighbouring countries to the East (Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine...) and to the South (North Africa, Middle East), where the EU is trying to improve stability. It sets out to achieve this by fostering economic development, employment and transport and energy infrastructure, but also by promoting EU values such as good governance, democracy and human rights.
The EU also has a comprehensive security and defence package, which enables it to support countries facing conflicts and crises. It has donated more than 11 billion euros in support of the Syrian people and continues to work with the international community to find a lasting solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Terrorism and serious crime also threaten our security. That is why the EU is pushing for more information exchange between the national law enforcement authorities (police, justice) via the umbrella organisation Europol, but also between customs services and border guards. It is making efforts to prevent radicalisation (and therefore terrorism) and set up a cyber security agency to make the internet safer.
Your voice counts
The EU is really not the inaccessible, bureaucratic juggernaut that many believe it to be. Quite the reverse. Your EU citizenship gives you the right to have a say in how the EU is run. And that goes far beyond voting in elections. You can also give your opinion on a law that is in the making via ‘Have your say’. The EU also engages in regular dialogues with citizens.
You can also submit an idea via an EU Citizens' Initiative. If you can convince a million other citizens from at least 7 countries of your idea, the European Commission will consider your idea. Finally, the Conference on the Future of Europe is an ideal opportunity for citizens to have their say. The digital platform is already available from 19 April 2021 onwards.
Often, we only hear about the EU when there are problems, for example because it has difficulty reaching agreement on the budget or a regulation which contributes to the impression that it is rather weak or slow. But behind the scenes, the EU is developing a progressive policy that makes our daily lives much more pleasant, as the limited list in this document shows. It has become so obvious that we don't think about it anymore.
With 27 Member States, and therefore 27 different visions, the decision-making process will not always run smoothly. After all, the EU is a democratic institution that prefers to seek consensus. Despite these differences in terms of vision, the Member States are well aware of the inestimable value that the EU offers them. Because in a changing world with emerging, ambitious superpowers, they no longer have a say as an individual country. The significant added value of the EU is more evident today than at any time in the past.