The European Union

The United Kingdom is currently a member of the European Union (EU), along with 27 other countries. This is set to change; on 23 June 2016, a referendum was held 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; this became known as “Brexit”. The formal procedures to start “the Brexit process” – ie the arrangements for the UK to leave the EU – began with notification by the UK Government under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on 29 March 2017. This means that the UK will formally leave the EU on 29 March 2019, but there will then  be a 21-month “transition period” during which much of the current arrangements continue. The final permanent arrangements for the relationship between the UK and the EU, for trade and all sorts of other matters, are still being negotiated.

In the meantime, the UK remains an active member of the EU. 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 28 Commissioners, one 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  751 “MEPs”(members of the European Parliament) directly elected by voters in each of the member states every five years. There are 73 UK MEPs. 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.

If you want to find out more, a good place to start is the  quick guide to the EU prepared by BBC News before the summer 2016 referendum, followed by its clear explanation of what Brexit means. The House of Commons Library briefing note on what happens after 29 March 2017  explains the processes to expect between March 2017 and March 2019. For full details about the EU’s institutions, laws and plans,  you can look at the official site of the EU here.

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

How the international world works