‘EU to ban our beaches.’
(Daily Mail, 15/4/2014)
‘Cod no longer to be called cod thanks to the EU.’
(Daily Mail/The Sun, 5/9/2001)
‘Europe orders Grimsby to contain its fishy smell.’
(Daily Star/The Sun/The Times, 7/1/1994)
Judging purely from these headlines, you’d think the EU is more intrusive in the lives of Brits than the Inner Party in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Rest assured that’s not the case.
The above news stories and the novel do have one thing in common: they’re all fiction.
In fact, many things you have read about the EU in British tabloids may not be true (that actually goes for most things they print).
The EU is neither a capitalist conspiracy nor a socialist utopia. Be that as it may, over the next year or two you’re going to be bombarded by ‘facts’, half-truths and downright lies about the EU – from those on both sides of the debate.
So it makes sense for us to take a step back and look at what the EU actually is.
Here’s my five minute guide…
Under cover diplomacy
The European Union started out as a project aimed at preventing future wars on the continent. Not long after its founding it changed into an economic area and later evolved into political co-operation.
The reason the EU has become more politicised is actually quite simple: the members of the economic area wanted to create a common market to eliminate all barriers to trade.
But to have a well-functioning common market that comprises many different countries, you need to make sure everyone applies the same rules.
And who make the rules? Politicians.
This, together with more and more countries joining, means the EU has got more complicated over time.
So complicated that John Major made his adviser hide under the table when European leaders were drafting the Maastricht Treaty so he could tell him what was going on.
Various sources confirm that Sir John Kerr was passing notes to the UK prime minister from under the table cover to advise him on how to vote.
Now that’s under cover diplomacy in its purest form.
What is the EU?
The Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, created the EU in its present form.
Like every democratic state it has an executive body (the commission), a legislature (the council and the parliament), a judiciary (ECJ) and a central bank (ECB).
Still, people often complain that the EU has a ‘democratic deficit’ and they have a point.
The European parliament is directly elected every 5 years, the council consists of government ministers elected in national elections, but commissioners are appointed.
Since the commission is the only body that can draft EU legislation, it has a strong say in EU policies. This has caused critics to say the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats.
Ultimately the commission is there to make sure legislation is implemented, which makes it essentially the EU’s civil service. In many ways national civil services often lack the same democratic legitimacy.
In any case it’s important to point out that it’s the council and parliament that approve, amend or reject proposed laws. So everyone that actually votes on the law has either been directly or indirectly elected by the European people.
Get out of jail free card
‘Brussels made me do it’ is a get out of jail free card used frequently by politicians at home. This may surprise you given what most commentators say on the subject, but in reality the EU hardly ever makes member states do anything.
Although there are policy areas where a majority of members is sufficient to pass laws, diplomats virtually always seek unanimity.
So to say that Britain doesn’t get a say in many issues is stretching the truth to the extreme.
Related to this is the particularly sticky issue of how much UK law is derived from EU law.
What’s the truth? Here it is: there is no right answer. Or, as a research paper from the House of Lords Library states: ‘there is no totally accurate, rational or useful way of calculating the percentage of national laws based on or influenced by the EU.’
It concludes that the number could be anywhere between 15% and 50% depending on what definitions you use. Most of these laws are related to the common market, which is the main reason Britain joined in the first place.
This is not to say that the EU wouldn’t benefit from reform. It would.
The current decision-making procedures were basically designed for a union of 15 states. Now that it counts 28 the formula may have been slightly adapted, but it hasn’t led to an efficient way of doing politics.
The many layers of decision-making also complicate the procedures and make it less clear who’s accountable for what.
Call me cynical, but I think that might be exactly how our leaders like it.