Inside the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/GettyImages
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An EU explainer for the easily bored: the institutions

In the first of a six-part series, Frances Robinson cuts through the election noise and tells you what you actually need to know about the bodies that make up the European Union.

Age: In 1951, six countries signed the treaty creating the European Coal and Steel Community –

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. OK, tough crowd here. The European Union as it exists today is based on a series of treaties signed between the member states –

Double zzzzzzzzz. No, listen, it’s important. The next general election is all about “Europe” and the debate in the UK is currently based on a blend of distortions, over-simplifications and outright lies. Put it like this: imagine the EU is the Premier League. The entire discussion is taking place with Mario Balotelli’s Twitter as the sole source of information. That’s the level of “EU debate” the UK is currently getting. Pay attention, and the level of your next pub brawl/polite dinner-party disagreement/House of Commons debate can be radically improved.

Alright. I suppose it is kind of important. How many countries is it? 28 now. Croatia was the latest country to join, in 2013. It’ll likely be the last for a while, with expansion plans having been put on the backburner. It definitely doesn’t include Russia and will probably never include Turkey. Also not in: Norway, Switzerland and Iceland.

28! No wonder it’s such a shambles. Indeed. If you’ve organised even a modest hen night, you’ll understand. There are two organisations that mainly make the decisions: the European Commission (like the civil service with a big stick) and the European Council. That’s the heads of state and government from the 28 countries – they meet four times a year (at least – at the height of the eurozone crisis it seemed like every weekend). Other ministers, such as finance or foreign ministers, meet every month.

What do they do there? David Cameron, Angela Merkel, François Hollande et al tend not to agree on much, so meetings can last all night, including a lavish dinner. Finnish PM Alex Stubb – the joker in the current pack – in his previous role as EU minister tweeted pictures of himself having a “vertical nap” during a lull in talks.

LOL those crazy Finns! You think that’s japes? We’re the only country known to have hidden an ambassador under the table. The talks on the Maastricht Treaty were so complicated, John Major smuggled his adviser in. Sir John Kerr hid under the table and tapped his knee to let him know how to vote.

Speaking of grey, where’s that one Farage called a bank clerk? That was pretty low, he looks more like an academic. That’s Herman van Rompuy, who was the President of the European Council. He’s just retired, and handed over to Donald Tusk (previously prime minister of Poland). The job consists of chairing these meetings for two and half years, and was created by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty.

OMG enough treatiezzzzzzzz Yeah, whatevs. The point is, to make any new laws, all 28 leaders have to sign, so at some point the British prime minister has agreed to every virtually single piece of legislation – after shaping it to be more acceptable. The exception is (jargon alert) qualified majority voting, known as QMV, where certain policy areas can be legislated on by a majority of countries. In reality, it’s very rarely used and diplomats strive for unanimity. It’s definitely not just a bunch of faceless bureaucrats making stuff up for laughs.

Where are they, then? Over the road from the council in the European Commission – the “civil service” which proposes and then enforces laws for the whole of the EU. Each country gets a commissioner – the UK has (Lord) Jonathan Hill. He’s responsible for financial services. A new commission, with a revised structure, took office on 1 November, with Jean-Claude Juncker, the former PM of Luxembourg, in charge.

I hear he likes a cheeky beverage. One couldn’t possibly comment. He is, however, an arch-manoeuvrer who’s said economic policy debates should only be conducted in “dark secret rooms” and that he wants a “more political” commission. He’s also proved surprisingly accommodating of the UK after David Cameron embarked on a rocambolesque mission to block his appointment, saying he’d work on a “fair deal with Britain... that accepts the specificities of the UK in the EU, while allowing the eurozone to integrate further”.

We should let them get on with it. That was the deal for 35 years or so, give or take some manufactured outrage about straight bananas and the Sun’s famous “Up Yours Delors” front page about Jacques Delors, the 1980s predecessor of Juncker. And it’s certainly what happens with everything the UK is not involved in – for example the European Central Bank (us not being in the single currency). It is kind of useful to be in a 28-nation free trade bloc, though.

Right.  Back to the commission. Does it have a secret sauna? Talk about a leading question! Yes, it’s in the basement. It may seem odd, but it’s healthier than the bars in the House of Commons. When not hanging out nude in the heat, the Commission proposes laws such as abolishing mobile roaming charges and makes banks pay back the money we lent them during the financial crisis. When the Commission writes laws they are reviewed by the European Parliament: that creates two versions of a draft law, then the Council (the UK government and others) gets involved and a third version is created, in a process cringingly known as “trialogue”. Then they compromise on a final text, or they don’t – famously it took more than 30 years to get the Italians and Spaniards to agree to a European patent. 

There’s a parliament too? Yes, a whole 35 per cent of the UK turned out to vote for it in May. The directly-elected body that sits in Brussels and Strasbourg does contain Nigel Farage, along with 750 other MEPs, in every flavour from communist to the far right by way of internet pirates. It’s a mixed bunch. The parliament doesn’t have much power, ultimately, and is on a mission to raise its profile and get more. Fans say it’s all about making citizens’ voices heard, sceptics see it as a lobbyists’ paradise.

Agencies? Yes, various agencies are scattered across Europe, from cybersecurity in Greece to the European Medicines Agency in London.

Any more? Courts? Yes, smartypants. The European Court of Justice is in Luxembourg and it makes sure EU laws are applied the same way in all 28 member states. It rules on everything from data protection – with Google being made to erase certain links (though not the actual web pages) about individuals  – to copyright cases on technologically-advanced German vibrator design. Like the commission, it’s one judge per member state.

What about Abu Qatada? It’s political correctness gone mad! The court that dealt with this, and the cabin steward wearing a cross, as well as thousands of much more mundane matters which never raise an eyebrow, is something ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.

Oh. It’s the European Court of Human Rights, which is connected to the Council of Europe. That’s a completely separate organisation from the EU. Founded post Second World War, it has 47 member states, and is more of an inter-governmental human rights watchdog. It makes sure member states don’t use torture or the death penalty, and that they defend freedom of thought and religion.

What about actual Eurovision? You’re just being silly, now. That’s organised by the European Broadcasting Union, which has 56 countries.

So.... this referendum? Would get us out of the EU – whatever that means. It wouldn’t undo the 100,000 pages of EU law we have already signed up to, which would still be sitting there on our books the day after a no vote. And we can talk about Britain’s relationship with it next week.

Follow Frances on Twitter @FMR_Brussels

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.