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Not government as we know it

21 September 2018

Gary Wilton looks behind the familiar caricatures to explain how the EU actually works


Theresa May and the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, hold a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels, in December

Theresa May and the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, hold a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels, in December

BRUSSELS is completely baffling. We are told that it is absolutely full of bureaucrats. We are told that they spend all their time inventing half-baked rules to make real life more difficult. And we are told that its institutions are extraordinarily Byzantine, wasting money imposing the half-baked rules that we didn’t want in the first place.

The UK has given the European Union 46 years of bad press, while generations of UK politicians have taken every opportunity to blame Brussels for many of our ills. Every nation needs its scapegoat, and ours has been Brussels. And it will still be Brussels even when we are no longer members of the EU. With hindsight, the majority vote for Brexit should not have been a surprise.

The Brexit negotiations were always going to be difficult, always seen here as the fault of EU intransigence; the script was written even before Article 50 was triggered.

Can you remember when a British minister last returned from a European summit saying how well we had cooperated with our partners; how well we had negotiated; how well we had worked together for everyone’s benefit? Such scenes have been rare indeed. More often, we have been exposed to repeated caricatures of ourselves: plucky Brits fighting an uphill battle against unreasonable and self-serving European Elite — and winning.

Our preferred European metaphors are rarely “consensus and compromise for the common good”, but “battle and victory for British interests”.


THE reality of the EU and its institutions is rather more complex than that. It is, not surprisingly, very difficult to read and understand. The EU is not a nation: it is not sovereign, it has no government, and it has no opposition.

The EU is a treaty-based international membership organisation, populated by 28 democratic sovereign states, each of which brings its distinctive democratic traditions and values to the table. The EU does not exist outside of treaty agreement. It has no more right to exist than the UN (New York and Geneva), NATO (Brussels), or the Council of Europe (Strasbourg).

It is more like them than anything else. It is what is known in the trade as a regional multi-lateral organisation.

Here we need a quick reminder that the Council of Europe is not part of the EU. It is a completely separate regional multi-lateral organisation with 47 member states, including Russia and Turkey. Established in 1947, with the active support of Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevan, it exists to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. It is led by a committee of ministers and a parliamentary assembly.

But it is most famous for its European Court of Human Rights. When you read in the British media about human-rights judgments “imposed by Europe”, they are usually referring to the European Court of Human Rights. It was the European Court of Human Rights, for example, which judged in 2013 that, for health and safety reasons, the British nurse Shirley Chaplain could not wear her cross at work; it was not the EU.


SO, HOW does the EU actually work? It is a membership organisation with members who decide the rules, with a secretariat authorised to resource the rule-making process, and a court to uphold the rules when the members break them or can’t agree on how to interpret them. It is very definitely not government as we know it.

The member states are all represented at the EU’s European Council (the similarity of its name to the Council of Europe is not helpful). When Theresa May goes to Brussels, she attends the European Council. It is the highest political decision-making body in the EU. It is made up of the 28 democratically elected heads of state or government, chaired by Donald Tusk, from Poland, a permanent president chosen by the members.

It does not legislate or adopt laws but sets the strategic political agenda for the EU. Closely related to the European Council is the Council of the European Union, which consists of ministers of the elected governments of 28 member states. Its role is to agree and finalise budgets and legislation with the European Parliament. The process is called co-decision-making.

The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU institution. It is chaired by a president, currently Antonio Tajani from Italy. It has 751 MEPS elected from each member state. Its role, alongside the Council of the European Union, is to agree and finalise budgets and legislation. The MEPs also have to agree the nomination of the president of the European Commission.

The European Commission is the executive institution of the EU. Its role is to propose new legislation to the Council of the European Union and the Parliament, and then to implement what has been passed. It is also responsible for monitoring external treaties and the day-to-day running of the EU. Its current president, appointed by the member states, is Jean-Claude Junker from Luxembourg.

The European Council sets the political direction, the European Commission proposes and implements, while the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union finalise budgets and pass legislation by co-decision. When member states break the rules or can’t agree on how they should be interpreted, matters then need to be referred to the EU’s own court: the European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg. All the judges are appointed by the member states.

There is, finally, one key organisation in Brussels that never ever gets mentioned: UKREP, the United Kingdom Representation to the EU, which is our embassy to the EU. It represents the UK’s interests to all the institutions of the EU and to the 27 other member-state representations. It also represents the UK to the Americans, Brazilians, Chinese and Russians etc., who have large embassies near the EU institutions.

Most UK embassies around the world are bilateral, simply representing UK interests to the host nation. In Brussels, the conversations are deeply multilateral, including the other 27 members and all the non-members who are trying to make an impact on the debate.

UKREP is the untold success story of Brussels. It is staffed by the brightest and best civil servants from across Whitehall. It is widely respected and often punches well above its weight in the Brussels policy-making process. Yet, on more than one occasion, a British minister has publicly undermined the careful under-the radar work of UKREP.


HAVING worked for five years in Brussels, I have no doubt that the EU is complex; and, yes, Brussels is full of bureaucrats. About 32,000 people work for the European Commission (compared to 44,000 for the UN Secretariat). No doubt some processes can feel very slow, owing to the multilateral nature of the conversation. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that Brussels policy-makers are less efficient, less honest, or less well-intentioned than their London, Edinburgh, or New York equivalents.

Sadly, the future will be one where we are baffled even more than we are today. We will have even less information about how the EU works, and, however well or badly the Brexit negotiations go, Brussels will be the scapegoat.

The bad press will continue. Publicly, we will be the victimised former member of the EU, tripped up and excluded by an unreasonable and self-serving Europe — while underneath the radar, UKREP, unrecognised and unacknowledged, and soon without a seat at the table, will continue to beaver away as best it can.

The Revd Dr Gary Wilton was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the EU, from 2008 to 2013, and is a former canon in the diocese in Europe.

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