The European Union: The Basics


On 23rd June 2016, the British people will have the opportunity to have a vote on Britain’s relationship with the European Union for the first time in over 40 years. In anticipation of this, over the summer term, SCAN Business will be publishing interviews about Britain’s relationship with the European Union with politicians, academics and campaigners across the political spectrum.


After the Second World War, Europe was left badly damaged. In 1950, the Treaty of Paris was signed, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community – today this has developed into the European Union as we know it, which continues to forge closer cooperation between the countries.


The EU is unlike any other international organisation. The role, powers and responsibilities of the EU go far beyond those of other organisations. It is quite complex, but here is the basic jist:

The European Council – Made up of the heads of government of EU countries, the European Council meet four times a year to discuss the broad issues. The European Council sets the direction for the European Union.

The European Commission – Essentially the EU’s bureaucracy, the European Commission is very different to our civil service. The EC is responsible for initiating new laws and policies and for ensuring that they are implemented. It is also responsible for the management of EU finances and for representing the EU in dealings with other international organisations, such as the WTO.

The Council of Ministers – Whilst the European Commission may propose laws, it is up to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to vote on them. The Council of Ministers is made up of national government ministers. The ministers take part in one of ten technical councils (e.g., in the Economic and Financial Affairs Council).

The European Parliament – Once a proposal is voted on by the Council, it goes to the European Parliament for a vote. The European Parliament is the only directly elected institution of the EU. However, unlike more conventional legislatures it cannot propose legislation. The EP is unusual as it is the only directly elected international legislature.

The European Court of Justice This is the final court of appeal and the supreme legal authority in the EU.

Note: The European Court on Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe – confusingly, this organisation is not part of the European Union. The Council of Europe is a separate organisation comprising of 47 states.


Main policy areas

Economic policy – Economic matters have always been a core feature of the European Union. As John McCormick (2011) explains: “Beginning with the initial experiment in pooling coal and steel production, and moving through the customers union, efforts to achieve exchange rate stability, the building of the single market, the switch to the euro, and efforts to deal with the financial crises of 2007-11, the EU agenda has been driven since the beginning by matters involving trade, tariffs, markets, currencies, and competition.”

Single Market – Freedom of movement is a central component of the single market. As a legal resident of an EU member state, a person is entitled to live, work, be educated and vote in local and European elections in any other member state.

Environmental policy – Much environmental law has been passed by the EU, with a focus on issues such as air quality, waste disposal and the regulation of chemicals.

Foreign policy – Currently, the EU is a global actor on economic matters, but not in foreign and security policy. Member states all have varied interests, as was shown in their divided response to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Iraq war. However, plans for further integration are underway, however contentious, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker again pushing for a European army in March last year.

David Cameron’s renegotiation

Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU before the in/out referendum, and negotiations concluded in February. Cameron has celebrated the renegotiation. However, others have been unimpressed with the deal the Prime Minister has come up with. Along with a sizeable number of Conservative politicians, Boris Johnson has said that the renegotiation brought “no real change”. The electorate were similarly unimpressed, according to YouGov polling results straight after the reform announcement. So, what key changes were made? David Cameron negotiated modest reforms to welfare entitlements to migrant workers, protections for the City of London from Eurozone regulation and some limits on free movement to tackle “sham marriages”. The full conclusions from the re-negotiation are here.

The referendum will be taking place on the 23rd June. Term finishes on the 24th. Wherever you will be, make sure you are registered to vote. To register, visit:

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