A beginners guide to the EU from a Sceptical Socialist.


In the debate on the EU referendum there is lots of talk about how the EU as an institution was founded on the Enlightenment principals of freedom, equality and commonality.

But this notion of the EU as a benevolent institution protecting human rights etc is often based on the conflation of various distinct European Institutions.

“The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, is a regional intergovernmental organisationwhose stated goal is to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in its 47 member states, covering 820 million citizens. The organisation is separate from the 28-nation European Union, though sometimes confused with it, in part because they share the European flag. Unlike the European Union, the Council of Europe cannot make binding laws.”

The UK was a founding member of The Council Of Europe.

“The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (formally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) is an international treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. Drafted in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe,[1] the convention entered into force on 3 September 1953. All Council of Europe member states are party to the Convention and new members are expected to ratify the convention at the earliest opportunity. The Convention established the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).”

The contents of the ECHR were largely inspired by a Conservative politician, Sir Winston Churchill, and drafted under the guidance of another one, David Maxwell-Fyfe (later Lord Chancellor Kilmuir) in the face of considerable opposition from the Attlee government. The ECHR should thus be regarded as the creation not of a ‘Social Europe’ but of the British Conservative party!

Both of the above are completely distinct institutions from the EU and in fact pre-date the EU by 40 years. There is no reason at all that if the UK leaves the EU it has to leave the Council Of Europe or ECHR.

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There is however another document that is often conflated with the European Convention On Human Rights, and that is:

The European Union’s charter of fundamental rights, which Britain only signed in 2008 as part of the Lisbon treaty. This Charter of Fundamental Rights, enfranchises as “rights” a host of secondary social and economic entitlements, which arise from the constitutional traditions of the EU Member States and from the fundamental rights and freedoms recognised by three documents; the ECHR,  the Council of Europe’s Social Charter, and the EU Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers.

This European Union’s charter of fundamental rights and especially it’s linking directly to the EU Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, is something that a Socialist like myself might be expected to support… BUT when you read it (here) it is very, very basic, in fact about as basic as you can get, i.e. “workers shall be assured of an equitable wage, ie a wage sufficient to enable them to have a decent standard of living.” Erm… hardly a revolutionary idea!

But the important point here is that this legislation arises from a distinct institution called The European Union (EU), which is a politico-economic union of 28 member states that operates through a system of supranational institutions and intergovernmental-negotiated decisions by the member states.

The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community(EEC), formed by the Inner Six countries in 1951 and 1958, respectively. In the intervening years, the community and its successors have grown in size by the accession of new member states and in power by the addition of policy areas to its remit.  The EU itself only came into being with the The Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The British electorate was never given the opportunity to vote directly on the changes brought in by the treaty and getting the treaty ratified by Parliament was extremely controversial and nearly brought down John Major’s government.

There are two distinct European Projects wrapped up in the EU:

(i) Is the ‘economic’ aim of establishing a ‘single market’, to allow Europe to ‘compete’ in the global, neoliberal, capitalist market-place. A ‘single market’ that allows equal and fair competition, requires common rules and regulations that are applied to ALL employers, retailers and consumers across the single market. Hence the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is a mechanism to facilitate ‘fair trade’ by establishing equal rights, not a mechanism for redistributing wealth or even ‘improving’ pay and conditions.

(ii) Is the ‘political’ aim of moving to a ‘Federal’ Europe, a ‘United States Of Europe’, modelled broadly on the USA, in which current European Nation States would become regions within the European Nation. Some envisage this going as far as a Europe with an elected European President, an elected European Federal Parliament, a European Army (and no national armies), A European Foreign Policy, A European Legal System.

There are some who believe that in the long-term (i) above cannot be sustained without (ii) above and vice versa.

In 1975 the British people voted to join the EEC, not the EU. At that time the EEC was sold to the UK public as purely an economic project as in (i) above.

It was however clear even then, that the ‘political’ project to Federalise Europe was already well advanced. There had been an attempt in 1952 to create the European Political Community and the European Defence Community but in 1954 the French National Assembly would not ratify either. Despite this set back the ‘political’ project of a United States Of Europe has nonetheless been pursued.

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I would argue that the fact that the European Federalists realise they could never win a vote across Europe for a Federal Europe, has led them to pursue their objective through surreptitious, ever-encroaching bureaucratic legislation. The aim being to create a de-facto United States Of Europe before anyone realised it was happening.The result is a vast, undemocratic, EU bureaucracy with decisions largely made via constant back-room bargaining, compromise and ‘diplomacy’, which by its nature is a process that has to be kept largely secret from the wider electorate. It isn’t difficult to get the Press to comply with this ‘secrecy’ because to the uninitiated these back-room shenanigans are intensely complex, procedurally and technically baffling and above all boring!

The problem is that they have significant real-world impact once enacted as legislation.

So what are the institutions that make up this thing we are all talking about called the EU?

The current institutions of EU are:

The European Parliament – which cannot ‘initiate’ legislation only approve or reject legislation brought to it by the European Commission (EC). It does however elect the President of the EC, and approves (or rejects) the appointment of the Commission as a whole. It can subsequently force the Commission as a body to resign by adopting a motion of censure.

The European Council is the institution of the European Union (EU) that comprises the heads of state or government of the member states, along with the Council’s own president and the president of the European Commission.

The Council of the European Union Sometimes known as ‘The Council Of Ministers‘. The Council meets in 10 different configurations of 28 national ministers (one per state). The precise membership of these configurations varies according to the topic under consideration; for example, when discussing agricultural policy the Council is formed by the 28 national ministers whose portfolio includes this policy area (with the related European Commissioners contributing but not voting). the agenda for the ministerial Council of the European Union meetings is set by the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). The COREPER may also take some procedural decisions. It oversees and coordinates the work of some 250 committees and working parties made up of civil servants from the member states who work on issues at the technical level to be discussed later by COREPER and the Council Of Ministers. It is chaired by the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The European Commission (EC) is the executive body of the EU responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU.  The Commission operates as a cabinet government, with 28 members of the Commission (informally known as “EU Commissioners”). There is one member per member state, though members are bound to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state.

The Court of Justice of the European Union is the chief judicial authority of the EU and oversees the uniform application and interpretation of European Union law, in cooperation with the national judiciary of the member states. CJEU also resolves legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions, and may take action against EU institutions on behalf of individuals, companies or organisations whose rights have been infringed.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank for the euro and administers monetary policy of the Eurozone, which consists of 19 EU member states and is one of the largest currency areas in the world. It is one of the world’s most important central banks and is one of the seven institutions of the European Union (EU) listed in the Treaty on European Union (TEU). The capital stock of the bank is owned by the central banks of all 28 EU member states.

The Court of Auditors was established in 1975 in Luxembourg to audit the accounts of EU institutions. The Court is composed of one member from each EU member state, one of whom is chosen to be its president.

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However, in addition to the ‘Institutions’ of the EU there are the Agencies of The EU

There are over 40 agencies, divided into 4 groups:

Decentralised Agencies

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions

European Environment Agency

European Institute of Innovation and Technology

European Training Foundation

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

European Medicines Agency

Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market

Community Plant Variety Office

Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union

European Food Safety Authority

European Maritime Safety Agency

European Aviation Safety Agency

European Network and Information Security Agency

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

European GNSS Agency

European Railway Agency

European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union

European Fisheries Control Agency

European Chemicals Agency

European Institute for Gender Equality

European Defence Agency

European Institute for Security Studies

European Union Satellite Centre

European Police College

European Police Office

European body for the enhancement of judicial co-operation

Fundamental Rights Agency

Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications

European Systemic Risk Board

Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators

European Banking Authority

European Securities and Markets Authority

European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority

European Asylum Support Office

European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT Systems in the area of freedom, security and justice

Executive Agencies

Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency

Executive Agency for Health and Consumers

Trans-European Transport Network Executive Agency

Research Executive Agency

European Research Council Executive Agency

Euratom Agencies

Euratom Supply Agency

European Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy

Independent Bodies

European Institute of Innovation and Technology

European Data Protection Supervisor

Authority for European political parties and European political foundations

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This thing is fecking huge!

And as almost all of its business is done via tortured, private, back-room negotiations between civil servants, it is profoundly undemocratic and all decisions are almost always technical compromises that give no one what they actually want.

So having to an extent got my head round what this thing called the EU is, I am as convinced as ever that the thing is profoundly undemocratic and has by now an unstoppable impetus propelling it towards a Federal United States Of Europe (Federal USE) within a time-frame of say, 50-75 years.

So I am then left with a number of questions:

Would a Federal USE be a good thing?

If not could the EU be prevented from moving in that direction?

If yes, what is the alternative to a Federal USE?

If not and a Federal USE is inevitable, would the UK be better off within it or outside it?

If not and a Federal USE is inevitable, could the EU be reformed before we get there to be more democratic and less bureaucratic? If so what would a reformed EU even look like?

Is the only way to make the EU ‘democratic’, as for example Varoufakis suggests, to accept going fully Federal? i.e. I fear that a Federal USE is implicit in Varoufakis iteration of a democratic EU.

OR must we try to force the EU to abandon the ‘political’ project entirely and revert to a purely ‘economic’ EU, that reduces the EU to effectively a form of free trade agreement between multiple partners – which would be to take it back to where it started.

In the end this leads me to the conclusion that the impetus moving us towards a Federal USE is in fact doomed to failure and will ultimately tear the EU apart.

The Economic Union of the EEC had benefits that were credible and could be understood by most, but local populations across Europe cannot see why what is effectively a ‘free-trade zone’, should require a loss of Sovereignty of their own Nation State.

And of course it doesn’t. But a ‘political’ union inevitably does.

It is also increasingly clear that any continued move towards European political union will lead to the growth of the Xenophobic Far-Right and ultimately I fear it could lead to terrorism and civil war(s), as local populations try to ‘free’ themselves from the yoke of a distant European ruling elite. In recent history we’ve had totalitarian dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece; we’ve had extended terrorist campaigns in N. Ireland and Catalan; we’ve had civil war on Europe’s borders in the former Yugoslavia.

How we think concentrating power in an undemocratic bureaucracy in Brussel’s is going to prevent such things in the future is beyond me.

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One response to “A beginners guide to the EU from a Sceptical Socialist.

  1. For some reason, after reading your comments, I am reminded of the programme, Blake’s 7. Everything united, power to a few, & the individuals (meaning those with independent thought) want no part of it. I thought our government (US) was huge, I had no knowledge of the EU.

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