EU politics 101: what is the EU?

Guys, we need to talk. There’s this referendum on Britain’s EU membership coming and there’s a lot of people out there who basically don’t feel they know enough about what it is they’re being asked to vote on when they’re being asked to REMAIN or LEAVE. Some people are dead certain one way or another, but why? What is it they know?

I used to teach politics to adults who needed to know how government really  works. So, here’s the basics. I’ll probably add to this as we go on…

Is the UK actually in the EU?
Yes. The European Union is the current name for the political and trade bloc that dominates the European continent.

There are 28 countries in the EU:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

But we’re not in the Euro?
No. Not everyone does everything: 19 of the countries have a common currency, the Euro, and so are more closely integrated on monetary policy.
Also, some of the countries have a common border control area called Schengen… more of that later.

Why did we join in the first place?
Let’s step into history for a moment…
From about 1950, European countries started to work together to pool resources that they had previously used against each other to wage war, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, then establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
The UK joined the EEC in 1973, referred to as the Common Market (a mistranslation of the French term march common which is better translated as single market).
A Conservative government took the UK into the EEC, but negotiations for this started in the 1960s. UK membership was vetoed twice (by the French!) in 1963 and 1967 because General De Gaulle did not believe Britain was sufficiently committed to the project, having established the alternative European Free Trade Area (EFTA). When he resigned in 1969, the way was clear for the UK to join the EEC.
The UK joined because:
– it was losing its empire (India, Burma and Ceylon all became independent in the 1940s) and the Commonwealth was less economically important to the UK than the continent on its doorstep;
– in the Cold War world, as clearly demonstrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain had lost its great power status and could not rely upon its “special relationship” with the USA to assert its power internationally;
– the EEC’s economy was growing faster and more successfully than the UK had previously believed would happen.
Basically, it is not the case that the UK was doing fine before membership and was suckered in.
There was a referendum (a commitment by a Labour government) in 1975 – the UK voted to stay in. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in. The actual wording of the official pamphlet used by the government can be seen here. The EEC was described as having the following aims (from the Treaty of Rome):

  • To bring together the peoples of Europe.
  • To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
  • To promote growth and boost world trade.
  • To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • To help maintain peace and freedom.

So we joined an Economic Union, not a political one?
I’d say it was pretty clearly political. Commitments to bringing together the peoples of Europe and maintaining peace and freedom were pretty political as aims…
After the 1975 referendum, successive British governments – using their legitimate position though representative democracy – signed Treaties that changed the name and exact nature of the EEC.
Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1987, introducing majority voting in the Council (ending the veto-all-areas).
Conservative Prime Minister John Major agreed the Maastricht Treaty which in 1992 introduced three policy “pillars” – Justice and Home Affairs, Common Foreign and Security policy and the single market bolstered by Economic and Monetary Union; as well as the name change to the European Union.
Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed the Amsterdam Treaty which sorted out a lot of the procedural difficulties that arose from Maastricht Treaty including identifying just one high representative for foreign and security policy, introduced EU-level labour market policy, integrated the Social Chapter, attached a range of fundamental rights for citizens and widened the role of the European Parliament as a co-decider of legislation (with the Council which represents the governments of Member States, not the Commission).
There was a lot of fuss in 2002-2004 about a second Treaty of Rome, a European Constitution, but although negotiated, it was never ratified, as several Member States voted No. Instead, the Reform Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009. It gave more leadership of the EU to the Council, with a named President chosen by the Heads of State and Government, and to the European Parliament.
Although the Treaties govern EU law making across the Member States, there are various opt-outs and opt-ins for different countries, and the UK is the major beneficiary of this flexibility.

Next… What everyone knows about the EU…