#euref What is the EU Anyway?

Posted on May 9, 2016 at 6:07 pm,

EU LogoThe EU referendum campaign is underway, and a lot of people don’t think they know enough to decide how to vote. So I thought I’d try explaining it all. This post is a quick guide to what the EU is and what it does. Other posts in this series will explore what “Brexit” looks like, and examine some of the arguments being made in the debate.

Before starting,you should know that I am in favour of remaining. Whilst I hope to represent both sides fairly in all the posts in this series, the fact that I come down on one side of the debate means I might be a bit biased at times.

Describing every part of the EU would be about as difficult as describing everything that the UK government does – both are large organisations that do a lot of different things. But at the most fundamental level, the EU is an international institution created by a series of treaties between its member states. In other words, the countries of Europe have agreed to work together on a lot of different issues, and the EU is the main way they do that.

What is the EU for?

The original aim of the EU was to create a peaceful Europe where countries trade with each other and work together to help each other, rather than going to war against each other. It began as a “common market” – bringing down the barriers to trade between the different member states. Its most fundamental principles are the “four freedoms” – that people, goods, services, and money should be free to move between the member states. There are, however, two very different visions of what it should focus on.

One vision is that the EU should be primarily about free trade – bringing down economic barriers between countries, and making it easier for business (especially big business) to do business here. Sometimes this vision appears to be about using the EU to make things easier for corporations. This is the vision shared by right-wing parties in Europe. In the UK, this is the pro-Europe wing of the Conservatives, the right wing of the Liberal Democrats, and some of the more Blairite members of Labour.

The other vision is that the EU should be primarily about protecting Europe from the negative effects of Capitalism. This is the view of most of Labour, some Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru. This view emphasises protections for workers, consumers, and the environment. Many within this group see the EU as the most effective way for European countries to fight climate change.

In practice, European legislation has been a mixture of both ideologies. Each group has managed to achieve things through the EU.

What powers does the EU have?

The EU only has power over some areas of policy.

It has sole power over the following things:

  • Customs rules between EU members
  • Competition rules that affect the common market within the EU
  • Monetary policy for countries using the Euro (which does not affect the UK)
  • Conservation of fish within EU waters
  • Common commercial policy
  • Negotiating international treaties that affect the things the EU has responsibility for.

The EU shares power with the member states on these issues:

  • The internal market (i.e. everything that allows free trade etc. within the EU)
  • Some aspects of social policy
  • “Economic, social, and territorial cohesion” (Basically helping areas in the EU with weaker economies catch up. In the UK, Wales has received a lot of investment from the EU under this area of policy.)
  • Agriculture and fisheries
  • Protecting the environment
  • Consumer protection laws
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • “Freedom, justice, and security” (meaning helping police co-ordinate across borders, and agreeing a common approach to things like asylum)
  • A few aspects of public health
  • Research and development, including the European Space Program
  • Shared development aid (part of our international aid budget is sent via the EU)

It has the power to support member states in the following areas, but cannot do anything to harmonise different countries’ laws:

  • Protecting public health
  • Industry
  • Culture
  • Tourism
  • Education, vocational training, youth, and sport
  • “civil protection” (I’m not entirely sure what this one means)
  • administrative co-operation between member states

It has the power to provide arrangements for the member states to co-ordinate policy in the following areas:

  • economic policy
  • employment
  • social policies

The EU has no powers over anything not listed above. So please don’t decide your vote on the basis of, say, defence policy where our membership of the EU is entirely irrelevant.

How does the EU work?

The EU works through a number of different institutions. I’ll go into detail on how EU law is passed in a later post in this series. There are seven “major” EU institutions, but the most important are the following four:

The European Parliament

Made up of elected representatives (called MEPs) from across Europe, the Parliament does most of the work of writing European laws.

The European Council

This is made up of the heads of state or government of the member states. The British Prime Minister, French President, German Chancellor etc. meet together four times a year to set the EU’s agenda.

The Council of the European Union (aka the Council of Ministers)

This is a committee made up of ministers from each member state. The minister each country sends will be the one responsible for that area of policy. For example, if they are discussing the Common Agricultural Policy then the council will be made up of the Agriculture ministers. Whilst the term “Council of Ministers” is unofficial, it is used far more often than the official name, and helpfully describes exactly what it is.

European Commission

This is the body that is responsible for running the EU. It is made up of one representative from each member state (usually nominated by that country’s government), and its President must be approved by both the Parliament and the European Council. Each commissioner has a particular area of EU policy that they are responsible for.

What the EU is not

There are several things that are associated with the EU, but which are technically separate things.

The Common Market

This is the part of the EU that allows free trade within the EU. Whilst it is the core part of the EU, it is possible to be part of the common market without actually being an EU member. We’ll get to that in the next post in the series.

The European Court of Human Rights

Not part of the EU at all. Though every EU member is required to sign up. This court is basically the ultimate court of appeal for human rights issues. It enforces the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Eurozone

Countries that use the Euro as currency. The UK has an opt-our from the Eurozone. If we left the EU and then re-joined we would have to sign up to adopt the Euro, although the process could be drawn out for quite some time.

The Schengen Agreement

All EU citizens have the right to live and work in any EU country. The countries that are part of Schengen go one step further – they have no internal borders. Anybody with a visa for one Schengen country can visit any other. So, for example, an American tourist can visit Spain, France, and Italy on the same trip. Switzerland is a Schengen country, but not part of the EU, and being allowed to live and work in one Schengen country does not automatically allow you to do so in every Schengen country. The UK is not signed up to Schengen, and some Schengen countries have re-introduced border controls as a result of the refugee crisis.


The next post in this series will discuss what “Brexit” would actually look like.


If you’ve noticed a mistake in this post, or there’s something that isn’t entirely clear, please tell me in the comments so that I can correct it.

If you’ve found this post helpful some of your friends probably will too. So make sure you share it on social media.

If you want to repost this on your own blog feel free to do so, as long as you credit me and link back to the original.

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