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.

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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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