What even is the EU?

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When 23rd June finally rolls around we will all be ten times as bored of hearing the words EU and Brexit, as we are now. But the problem which has already become starkly apparent, and I am sure will not be resolved by that date, is that it appears the majority of the UK hasn’t got a clue what the European Union really is – and as a result whether or not to vote to leave or remain.

Many of us may have read an opinion piece, listened to a news headline, watched a 3 minute viral video, had a Facebook debate or even none or all of the above – but has any of this really made us the wiser? From topical debate shows, to news broadcasts and general chat to friends and work colleagues, it’s clear the referendum is being dropped from a heavy height on the public, with little or no independent facts being provided.

As a history and politics graduate, I’m not ashamed to say I don’t know the full facts or functions of the EU, so how does the Government expect the entire British public to be clued up on the inner workings of this multi-national organisation?

Mystified by the media

The media is churning out all kinds of think pieces from independent experts and political analysts, but it seems there is an obvious gap in their reporting. I have seen little to no basic, uniform and unbiased media explaining in layman’s terms what the EU actually is and what is does – rather than the endless pro and against lists.

This article isn’t here to tell you how to vote, because that’s not what the discourse around the debate should be. No one should be telling others how to vote, rather we must all be helping each other make informed and accurate decisions. Yet so far, both the leave and stay campaigns (which encompass all sides of the political spectrum) have done nothing except add to the already muddied confusion of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Despite the Government’s recent attempt to educate the public with a leaflet stating why we should remain, this has faced further backlash. The leaflets cost the tax payer £9million to produce which has angered many, and not just those on the out campaign. But wouldn’t we all be just as angry if they produced nothing, and instead left the debate to the vast array of pro and against groups which have sprung up in the last year?

Clearly there is no logical answer on how a country should stage and execute a referendum of such high importance. But one thing is clear, there needed to be more independent information on what this multi-national institution even is, before the public is supposed to vote on our future within it.

What is the EU?

Essentially the EU is group of states across the European continent who combined together to ensure economic prosperity, security and peace. The concept began after WWII in an effort to prevent further wars, and in 1957 the European Economic Community (EEC) was created which became the foundation for the EU today.

The UK joined in 1973 under conservative PM Edward Heath and today the Union has 28 member states with a total population of over 500 million.

The point of this collective of countries is to create economic co-operation – which means that countries which trade together, stay together (or at least are less likely to go to war with one another).

The other main principle of the EU is that it is a single market, which entails goods and people are able to freely move around the member states, as if we were one country – similar to the UK with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland for example.

Each member country contributes different amounts every year to be part of the EU, in 2015 the budget was 145bn euros. Germany contributed 21.36% of this and the UK 12.57%, approximately £8.5bn. It has been estimated the cost of being part of the EU is just £260 per house hold, per annum.

How does it work?

Like a country the EU has a number of institutions which keep it running, the four main ones are:

The European Commission:  Similar to the UK civil service, the Commission makes the whole EU tick. It is headed by 28 Commissioners, one from each country, who propose and enforce laws, set objectives and priorities for action, manage policies and the EU budget, as well as representing the EU outside of Europe.

The European Parliament: The parliament is directly-elected by EU voters every 5 years, we last voted in 2014. Similarly to the Commission, the 751 MEPs have legislative, supervisory and budgetary responsibilities. Effectively, it is the Westminster of Europe, you can see a full break down of what it does here.

The European Council: This is where governments of the member countries have their say and define the general political direction and the goals of the EU. Heads of state meet at the council to make deals, compromises and hold summits, for example this is where Cameron made his deal about the UK’s new relationship with the EU.

The Court of JusticeThe court essentially ensures everyone sticks to the rules and follows laws set out by the EU, particularly that they are interpreted and applied the same way in every country. It also settles any arguments and legal disputes between governments and EU institutions.

How does it affect you?

The EU has an influence on all kinds of issues which affect the UK as a whole, as well as us as individuals, here are just a few aspects the EU has influenced in the UK.

Jobs: The EU has ensured as workers we have universal rights in the UK. From fair and equal pay, to the right not be discriminated against, to fair working hours, rights for working parents, the right to paid holidays and a regular lunch break. Moreover, it has been estimated that as many as 3 million British jobs are linked to the EU, due to our exports.

Economy: The EU is the UK’s single biggest export market, where around half of the goods produced in the UK are sent. This means being part of the EU helps our economy to grow here at home, making the UK better off financially. If we were to leave the Union these export deals would have to be renegotiated, which could potentially result in damage to our economy.

Environment: One of the most significant aspects of EU legislation in recent decades has been their influence on the environment, the EU has the strongest wildlife protection policies in the world and has enhanced animal welfare in food production. Moreover, as part of the EU UK companies must conform to certain regulations regarding pollution and waste management, which benefits the environment.

Consumer protection: The EU Charter for Fundamental Rights ensures all shoppers receive fair treatment as buyers, their products meet acceptable standards and we have the right to return items if something goes wrong.

Food labeling: The EU has also been instrumental in ensuring that food producers correctly label their products. This relates allergy information, nutritional information, as well as origin information of where food is produced.

This article didn’t set out to tell you how to vote, but simply to remind you that we all have an important decision to make. Ensure you’re going to the polls as an informed citizen on June 23rd, not having been swayed by Nigel Farage’s “the immigrants are coming” sound bites, or David Cameron’s power trip speeches. It must be a decision you have reached on your own accord, don’t let a few make a decision for the many.

For more comprehensive articles detailing what the EU has done for the UK and how it affects us please look here, here and here

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