The European Union

As from 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the European Union (EU).  This followed a referendum held on 23 June 2016, in which UK citizens were asked whether the United Kingdom should stay in the EU or leave it. The result was a vote (52% versus 48) in favour of leaving. 

After a lengthy and often divisive process (see entry on Brexit here), the UK and the EU finally signed the “Withdrawal Agreement”, which sets out the basis of the UK’s departure from the UK, in January 2020. 

Under this “Withdrawal Agreement” there is an 11-month “transition period” during which much of the current arrangement continues, though the UK will not generally be represented in the EU institutions. It is hoped that a new trading agreement will be signed between the UK and the EU before the end of 2020.

Whatever the details of the trading agreement, the EU will remain important to the UK. The main things you need to know about the EU are:

  • it started off as a trading agreement between European countries, in response to the conflicts of the Second World War. The idea was that if countries traded with one another they would be less likely to go to war.
  • The European Economic Community (EEC) was created in 1958. The initial members were Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
  • Other countries joined and became “member states” over the years. The United Kingdom joined in 1973.
  • The EEC gradually evolved into a political as well as economic union. Its name was changed to the EU in 1993 to reflect this.
  • The EU is based on treaties, agreed between the different member states.
  • In the treaties, the member states agree what powers the EU should have and in what areas of political life. Member states have kept their own powers in some areas, and agreed that other areas are for the EU, acting through its different institutions.
  • Member states have to follow EU law in the areas where it applies.

The main institutions of the EU are:

  • The European Commission – formed of one Commissioner from each member state. It proposes new EU laws, proposes the budget, and represents the EU in international bodies. More details are here.
  • The Council of Ministers – formed of the heads of state of the different member states. It decides on the EU’s overall direction and political priorities. More details are here.
  • The European Parliament – formed of “MEPs”(members of the European Parliament) directly elected by voters in each of the member states every five years.  The Parliament passes EU laws (together with the EU Council) and supervises EU work. More details are here.
  • The European Court of Justice – formed of one judge from each member state, plus 11 “Advocates General” . Its role is to ensure that EU law is interpreted and applied in the same way in every member state, and that member states comply with EU law. More details are here.

For full details about the EU’s institutions, laws and plans,  you can look at the official site of the EU here. For a clear explanation of what did or did not change on 31 January 2020 see the BBC article here.

You might also be interested in our other pages on international organisations:

How the international world works