1. What is the EU?

Section contents


  • Unifying ideal: a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe
  • Four freedoms established in 1958
  • When UK joined in 1973, it was clear that membership involved much more than trade
  • EU uses a democratic model to govern the European Commission and approve laws
  • UK has had strong influence in the EU
  • EU has areas to address but democratic deficit often exaggerated

Click here for summary of Brexit FactBase

Generic filters

To define the EU, this section looks at EU history, EU institutions, UK control and influence and the democratic deficit.

EU history

Founding principles

The EU came into existence in 1993, following the Maastricht Treaty. The predecessors came into being in the aftermath of the Second World War. The unifying ideal of the founding fathers was a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.

The first steps fostered economic cooperation because countries which trade with one another become economically interdependent and less likely to start a conflict.

Figure 1.1 shows the sequence of countries joining the EU. In 1951, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands founded the European Coal and Steel Community, and later, in 1957, the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community.

On 1 January 1958, the Treaty of Rome established the four freedoms of movement of persons (initially workers), capital, goods and services.

On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the 28th Member State of the European Union. Since then no other countries have joined the EU, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.

European Union and image from BBC website (no longer available); text boxes have been added (prior to UK exit).
Treaty of Rome (in French), signed 25 March 1957, effective 1 January 1958.


Accession countries

The current accession candidates are:

  • Republic of North Macedonia (candidate since 2005)
  • Montenegro (candidate since 2010)
  • Serbia (candidate since 2012)
  • Albania (candidate since 2014)
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Ukraine, (all candidates since 2022)
  • Georgia (candidate since 2023)
  • Turkey’s accession process is at a standstill (candidate since 1999), but it has received financial support from the EU for Pre-accession Assistance.

In addition, Kosovo applied for EU membership in 2022, but does not yet have candidate status.

Source: European Union, EU enlargement (accessed May 2024)


European flag

The European flag was originally adopted by the Council of Europe in 1955. The Council of Europe is an international organisation with 46 members (including the UK) that is separate from the EU. It defends human rights and promotes European culture. In the years that followed, the Council of Europe encouraged the emerging European institutions to adopt the same flag. 

The flag symbolises identity and unity of Europe. It features a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background. They stand for the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe. The number of stars has nothing to do with the number of member countries.

In 1983, the European Parliament decided that the Communities’ should use the Council of Europe flag in 1983. Then, in 1985, EU leaders unanimously adopted it as the official emblem of the European Communities, later to become the European Union.

Source: EU website


UK accession and referendum

In 1973, the UK joined along with Denmark and Ireland. In the 1980s, Greece, Portugal and Spain joined. In 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden joined. In 2004, ten new countries (mainly from eastern Europe) joined, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Croatia became the 28th member country in 2013.

It was clear to the UK at the time of joining that the EC was about much more than trade – see the open letter from the then Prime Minister in Figure 1.2.

“The Community which we are joining is far more than a common market”, Edward Heath, Prime Minister, December 1972

After the UK had joined the European Community in 1973, a referendum in 1975 approved the UK’s decision to stay in the EC:

  • 17.4 million voted in favour of staying in and 8.5 million voted against – a majority of 8.9 million
  • The vote was 67.2% to 32.8% (a majority of 34.4%) with a turnout of 64.6%
  • As a percentage of the whole electorate (i.e. not just those who voted), the majority was 43.4% in favour to 21.2% against, with 35.4% not voting.

For a comparison with the 2016 referendum result, please see Appendix A – referendum analysis.


EU treaties

The EU is a union of sovereign nations; it is not a state or a country. The basis of the EU is in the treaties agreed by all the member countries. In 2007, the latest main update was signed in Lisbon and came into force 1 January 2009. EU treaties define in legal terms the rights and obligations of the member states and the roles of the institutions of the EU.

When, in 1950, French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, proposed integrating western Europe’s coal and steel industries, his ideas were set out in the Treaty of Paris and the European Coal and Steel Community was born. Since then, the EU and its predecessors have regularly updated and added to the treaties to ensure effective policy and decision-making. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 18 April 1951 and entered into force in 1952. It expired in 2002. These treaties followed:

  • Treaties of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), were signed in Rome on 25 March 1957 and came into force in 1958. The treaties of Rome set out the four freedoms.
  • Single European Act (SEA) was signed in February 1986 and came into force in 1987. It amended the EEC Treaty and paved the way for completing the Single Market.
  • Maastricht Treaty – the Treaty on European Union – was signed on 7 February 1992 and came into force in 1993. The Maastricht Treaty established the EU, in which member states confer competences to attain common objectives. It also introduced ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.
  • Amsterdam Treaty signed on 2 October 1997 and came into force in 1999. It amended previous treaties.
  • Nice Treaty signed on 26 February 2001 and entered into force in 2003. It streamlined the EU institutional system so that it could continue to work effectively after the new wave of Member States joined in 2004.
  • Lisbon Treaty signed on 13 December 2007 and came into force in 2009. It simplified working methods and voting rules, created a President of the European Council. It introduced new structures with a view to making the EU a stronger actor on the global stage. It also determined the areas, limits and arrangements for exercising the EU’s competences.

Euratom is governed by a separate treaty between its members.

EU institutions

EU institutional framework

“The Union shall have an institutional framework which shall aim to promote its values, advance its objectives, serve its interests, those of its citizens and those of the Member States, and ensure the consistency, effectiveness and continuity of its policies and actions.” (Treaty on European Union)

Figure 1.3 shows the seven institutions of the EU and describes their principal functions. The European Parliament, the European Council, the Council (of the European Union) and the European Commission are the main players, supported by the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors.

Figure 1.3: EU institutions


Two important non-EU institutions

The Council of Europe is not an EU institution. It is an intergovernmental organisation which aims to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It also promotes European culture. Established in 1949, one of its early achievements was to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council of Europe now has 46 member states, including all EU countries, and its headquarters are in Strasbourg, France. (See below.)

The European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution. To enable citizens to exercise their rights under the Convention, the Council of Europe set up the European Court of Human Rights. (See below.)

Source: National Audit Office, Briefing on EU-UK finances, December 2016


EU institutional responsibilities

Figure 1.4 shows the responsibilities of six of the seven institutions (excluding the ECB, which is covered separately below) and how they interact. The Brexit FactBase section on sovereignty and law discusses the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Of the 27 commissioners within the European Commission from each member state, one is President of the Commission and another is High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The UK had 73 MEPs when it was a member, out of a total of 751. On the UK’s departure, 27 parliamentary seats were redistributed to other countries, while the remaining 46 are being kept in reserve for potential future enlargements.

Figure 1.4: EU institutional framework and responsibilities

Source: National Audit Office, Briefing on EU-UK finances, December 2016 (data on MEPs and member states updated to show post-Brexit position)


European Central Bank

The ECB is an official EU institution at the heart of the Eurosystem (the monetary authority of the eurozone) and the Single Supervisory Mechanism. It has more than 5,000 employees and trainees from all over Europe work for the ECB in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. They perform a range of tasks in close cooperation with the national central banks within the Eurosystem and, for banking supervision, with the national supervisors within the Single Supervisory Mechanism.

The ECB’s President is Christine Lagarde and the Vice-President is Luis de Guindos. The main decision-making body is the Governing Council, which consists of the six members of the Executive Board plus the governors of the central banks of the euro area countries.

Twenty of the 27 Member States have also joined the euro. The most recent joiner was Croatia in 2023, having become a Member State in 2013. Of the remaining seven, Denmark (which joined with the UK in 1973) has an opt out from the Euro. Six countries have yet to join, having become member states from 17 to 29 years years ago:

  • Sweden (1995)
  • Czechia (2004)
  • Hungary (2004)
  • Poland (2004)
  • Bulgaria (2007)
  • Romania (2007)

For more details on the ECB please visit its website.

EU presidents

A president heads each institution. For the five most relevant to this discussion, Table 1.1. describes their roles and how they are elected or appointed. The roles are facilliative like ‘chairman of the board’ rather than executive like the president of the United States.

There are two other presidents:

  • Christine Lagarde is the president of the ECB, which formulates monetary policy for the Eurozone.
    • She became president on 1 November 2019 for a non-renewable term of 8 years.
    • The president of the ECB is a member of the European Council.
    • She replaced Mario Draghi after the European Council made a formal decision on the appointment on the basis of a Council recommendation, after consulting the European Parliament and the ECB Governing Council.
  • Koen Lenaerts is the president of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and its most senior judge.  See the section on sovereignty and law for discussion of the CJEU. He has been president since his election on 8 October 2015.


2019 changes

The European Council (the heads of state of the member states) elected Charles Michel (Belgian Prime Minister) as President from 1 December 2019 to replace Donald Tusk. Charles Michel’s term of office ended on 31 May 2022, but was renewed once for another two and a half years until 30 November 2024.

The Council also adopted the proposal of Josep Borrell (Spanish Foreign Minister) to replace Frederica Mogherini (former Italian Foreign Minister) as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: subject to a European Parliamentary vote.

Taking into account the results of the European elections, the President of the European Council consulted with the European Parliament on possible candidates for Commission President. Following the consultations, he proposed Ursula von der Leyen (German Defence Minister) to the European Council to replace Jean-Claude Juncker. The European Council adopted the proposal (by qualified majority).

The European Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen by a simple majority of its members on 16 July 2019. She won 383 votes from the 747 MEPs that voted (51.3%). If she had not succeeded, the Council would have put forward an alternative candidate to the Parliament. The President-elect then had the summer to put a team together based on nominees from national capitals.

The Council, in agreement with the Commission President-elect, adopted 26 new commissioners, one for each member state (apart from the UK). The Commissioners-designate appeared before parliamentary committees in their prospective fields of responsibility. Each committee then met to draw up its evaluation of the candidate’s expertise and performance, which was sent to the President of the Parliament. A negative evaluation has prompted candidates in the past to withdraw from the process. Three proposed commissioners were rejected and replaced.

On 27 November 2019, the Parliament approved the full Commission, including the Commission President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in a single vote of consent. The new Commission took effect from 1 December 2019 (a month later than planned).

For further information on appointments and responsibilities, please see:

Table 1.1: EU presidents
How selectedRole
European Parliament
Roberta Metsola
Proposed by: at least 40 MEPs or political group.
Elected by: MEPs (absolute majority)
Term: 1 January 2022 – 30 June 2024
Ensures parliamentary procedures are properly followed
Oversees Parliament's various activities and committees
Represents Parliament in all legal matters and in its international relations
Gives final assent to the EU budget
European Council
Charles Michel
Elected by: Council members (the 27 heads of state and government of EU countries) by qualified majority
First term: 1 December 2019 – 31 May 2022
Reelected unanimously in March 2022 for a second term to 30 November 2024
Leads the European Council's work in setting the EU's general political direction and priorities – in cooperation with the Commission
Promotes cohesion and consensus within European Council
Represents the EU externally on foreign and security issues
European Commission
Ursula von der Leyen
Proposed by: European Council based on political make-up of Parliament
Elected by: MEPs (absolute majority)
Term: 1 December 2019 – 31 October 2024
Gives political guidance to the Commission
Calls and chairs meetings of the college of the Commissioners
Leads the Commission's work in implementing EU policies
Takes part in G7 meetings
Contributes to major debates both in European Parliament and between EU governments in the Council of the EU
Council of the EU
Belgium - President is Alexander De Croo (Prime Minister of Belgium)
Council presidency rotates every 6 months through a trio of countries.
National government holds the position, not an individual.
Term: 1 January 2024 - 30 June 2024
Current trio: Spain, Belgium, Hungary

Council of the EU is where national ministers discuss EU legislation
Responsible for driving forward the Council's work on EU legislation, ensuring the continuity of the EU agenda, orderly legislative processes and cooperation among member states
Works with two other countries in a trio which changes every 18 months. For example, representatives from the presidency country chair its meetings.
Next group of three countries: 1 January 2025
European Court of Auditors
Tony Murphy
Appointed by: 27 Members of the European Court of Auditors (‘first among equals’)
Term: 1 October 2022 – 30 September 2025
Chairs ECA meetings and ensures ECA decisions are implemented and that the institution is soundly managed
Represents ECA in its external relations, in particular with the discharge authority, other EU institutions and supreme audit institutions of Member and beneficiary States
EU presidentsHow selectedRole
Updated: 28 August 2023
EU presidents – who does what?
European Court of Auditors – governance


European Court of Auditors

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) examines the accounts of the Union. The ECA reports to the European Parliament and to the European Council. To be effective, the Court of Auditors, like any other audit institution, must remain independent of the institutions and bodies that it audits.

The ECA:

  • operates as a collegiate body of 27 members, one from each EU country. The ECA is supported by highly qualified staff originating from all member states. The auditors frequently audit in the other EU institutions, the member states and other beneficiary countries.
  • cooperates closely with supreme audit institutions in the member states. The ECA’s work largely concerns the EU budget for which the Commission retains overall responsibility. Its management of over 80% of expenditure is shared with national authorities.
  • is free to: select its audit topics, the specific scope and approach to be followed. It decides how and when to present the results of its selected audits. It chooses the publicity to be given to its reports and opinions.
  • has no judicial powers. However, its work brings irregularities, weaknesses and cases of suspected fraud to the attention of the EU bodies responsible for taking action, including the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).
Sign-off of EU accounts

The ECA signed off on the 2018 accounts as reliable (‘true and fair’) – something it has done for each of the 12 years since 2007.  For 2018, the ECA found that the majority of expenditure was free from material error (that is, most errors were less than 2% of expenditure).

  • The EU budget for 2018 was for €157 billion of spending.
  • The overall level of error for EU spending in 2018 was estimated at 2.6%, compared with 2.4% in 2017 and 3.1% in 2016. This is spending that did not follow the rules and accordingly should not have been paid out. This covers a wide range of situations and, according to the ECA, is not synonymous with waste or fraud.
  • Errors occurred mainly in high-risk spending areas, such as in rural development and cohesion, where payments from the EU budget reimburse costs incurred. These spending areas are subject to complex rules and eligibility criteria, which may lead to errors.

As the President of the ECA said:

“Thanks to improvements in its financial management, the EU now meets high standards of accountability and transparency when spending public money. We expect the incoming Commission and the Member States to sustain this effort,”

Source: 2018 EU audit in brief, ECA, October 2019


EU staffing levels

Around 46,000 people staff the main EU institutions described above. The ECB has a further 2,500 staff.

  • The European Commission employs around 32,000 people, divided into departments known as Directorates General (DGs), roughly equivalent to ministries. Each covers a specific policy area or service such as trade or environment, and is headed by a Director-General who reports to a Commissioner.
  • In the European Parliament, around 7,500 people work in the general secretariat and in the political groups. In addition, there are Members of Parliament and their staffs.
  • In the Council of the European Union, around 3,500 people work in the general secretariat.
  • The Court of European Justice employs 2,200 people.
  • The ECA has about 800 staff.

By way of comparison, the UK civil service had 389,000 full-time equivalent civil servants at March 2017. Separately, in local UK government, there are 16 county and city councils that each employ more than 20,000 people: Birmingham, Devon, Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Manchester, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Surrey, Warrington, West Sussex, East Riding of Yorkshire, and North Yorkshire.

Sources: Europa, CuriaHouse of Commons Library, Civil Service Statistics, August 2017, Oscar Research Limited


European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights is separate from the EU. It is an international court set up in 1959 by the Council of Europe. It rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR’s judgments are binding on the countries concerned and have led governments to alter their legislation and administrative practice in a wide range of areas. The Court’s case-law makes the Convention a modern and powerful living instrument for meeting new challenges and consolidating the rule of law and democracy in Europe.

The Court is based in Strasbourg, from where the Court monitors respect for the human rights of 700 million Europeans in the 46 Council of Europe member states that have ratified the Convention.

Since 1998 the Court has sat as a full-time court and individuals can apply to it directly. Since the Court was established in 1959, the Court, by 2021, had delivered 24,511 judgments. More than a third of them have concerned three member States: Turkey (3,820), the Russian Federation (3,116) and Italy (2,466).

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe has 46 member states. These comprise all countries with territory in Europe except Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Vatican City. The Russian Federation was expelled from the Council of Europe on 16 March 2022.

The Council of Europe and the EU share the same fundamental values – human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – but are separate entities which perform different, yet complementary, roles. Focusing on those core values, the Council of Europe brings together governments from across Europe – and beyond – to agree minimum legal standards in a wide range of areas. It then monitors how well countries apply the standards that they have chosen to sign up to. It also provides technical assistance, often working together with the European Union, to help them do so.

European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention 
on Human Rights is an
 international treaty under which the member states of 
the Council of Europe promise 
to secure fundamental civil
 and political rights, not only
 to their own citizens but also to
 everyone within their jurisdiction.
 The Convention, which was signed on 4 November 1950 in Rome, entered into force in 1953.

The Convention’s guarantees include:

  • the right to life
  • the right to a fair hearing
  • the right to respect for private and family life
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
  • the protection of property.

The Convention’s prohibitions include:

  • torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • slavery and forced labour
  • death penalty
  • arbitrary and unlawful detention
  • discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set out in the Convention.

Other bodies not to confuse:

Sources: From the links in the text.

Control and influence

MEPs and voting

The Parliament had 751 MEPs based on adult population (the UK had 73 MEPs or 9.7% of 751) until Brexit. Now, there are 705 MEPs, 27 seats were redistributed and 46 are kept in reserve for future enlargement of the EU.

To be passed by Council, proposed EU laws require a majority not only of member countries (55%) but also of EU population (65%). At least four Member States representing at least 35% of the EU population can block a decision. The Council must then do everything in its power to reach a satisfactory solution within a reasonable time period.

Votes per country in the Council (prior to UK departure):

  • 29 votes: France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom
  • 27: Poland, Spain
  • 14: Romania
  • 13: Netherlands
  • 12: Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal
  • 10: Austria, Bulgaria, Sweden
  • 7:   Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia
  • 4:   Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia
  • 3:   Malta

MEPs for 2019 – 2024 have joined these political groupings:

  • EPP: Christian Democrats or European People’s Party (182 MEPs)
  • S&D: Socialists and Democrats: (Previously PS – Progressive Socialists) (154)
  • RE: Renew Europe (previously ALDE – Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) (108)
  • Greens-EFA: Greens – European Free Alliance (74)
  • ID: Identity and Democracy (previously ENF: European Nations and Freedoms Group) (73)
  • ECR: European Conservatives and Reformists (62)
  • GUE/NGL: European United Left-Nordic Green Left (41)
  • Non-attached – Brexit Party (29)
  • Non-attached – MSS (Italian Five Star Movement) (14)
  • Non-attached – other (13)

See the section on sovereignty and law for details of the areas affected by EU law.

Parliamentary political groups

There are seven political groups in the European Parliament and a small number of unattached MEPs.

  1. European People’s Party (EPP) is the most powerful political grouping in the European Parliament (182 MEPs). The political groupings bring together MEPs with a common ideological outlook. Manfred Weber from Germany leads the EPP group, which includes the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. The Conservative Party used to be aligned with the EPP, but in 2009 aligned itself with the ECR, which is supportive of the EU but wishes to see it reform.
  2. Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D Group) is centre-left, pro-EU, social democrat (154 MEPs). Iratxe García Pérez (Spain) is the president. The UK Labour Party aligns with the S&D group.
  3. Renew Europe is a political group with 108 MEPs, which is the successor to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE) which existed from 2004 to 2019. In May 2019, ALDE dissolved and the new group announced the adoption of its name on 12 June 2019 after it formed an alliance with La République En Marche!. The UK’s Liberal Democrat MEPs align with this group. Dacian Cioloș, former Prime Minister of Romania, is the group’s inaugural chairman.
  4. Greens-EFA are left/centre-left and regional (74 MEPs). Ska Keller (Germany) and Philippe Lamberts (Belgium) are Co-Presidents.
  5. Identity and Democracy (ID Group) is the successor to the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group from June 2019 (73 MEPs). It is far-right. Marco Zanni (Italy) is the president of the ID group
  6. European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR Group) is centre-right to right-wing and eurosceptic. It has 62 MEPs. Its Co-Chairmen are: Ryszard Legutko (Poland) and Raffaele Fitto (Italy).
  7. Left Group (GUE/NGL) is the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left. It has 41 MEPs but has not elected a president yet. The acting chair is Martin Schirdewan (Germany), who has been a MEP since 2017.

The Brexit Party (29 MEPs) and MSS (Italian Five Star Movement) (14 MEPs) were not attached to any of the above groupings. There were 13 other unattached MEPs.

Source: Europa, The political groups of the European Parliament

Governing Commission proposals

The European Commission is the body of civil servants that serves the Parliament and the Council.  The overall process for setting priorities and creating proposals for legislation follows three main steps.

UK influence (pre-referendum)

[This section is based on the views of senior Brussels-based British civil servant who no longer works for the civil service].

The description of how the EU works can be brought to life by looking at the UK’s influence within the EU.

“The UK has always been successful in seeking beneficial changes to EU proposals/legislation when it has sought it. However the UK’s influence has been decreasing over time” …… senior Brussels-based UK civil servant (retired) – 2016 pre-referendum

The UK’s influence could be seen in:

  • Language – English is currently the main language of the EU;
  • Form of legislation – drafting of EU legislation follows pattern found in UK legislation;
  • Form of deliberation – use of committees and negotiation between opposing political views is as in the UK;
  • Anglo Saxon’ economic model – used by many EU states with the UK seen as creator/developer of model;
  • UK financial services – UK viewed as EU financial regulatory centre and global hub for EU.

The UK had also succeeded in placing UK people, or people favourable to the UK, in key positions, for example:

  • The UK’s Jonathon Hill was Commissioner for Financial Services until he resigned in 2016, after the referendum.
  • Economic and Monetary Committee in last EP was chaired by Sharon Bowles (previously MEP for SE England) – now Baroness Bowles
  • Committee for Internal Market and Consumer Protection chaired by Vicky Ford (MEP, East of England)
  • UK MEPs often acted as rapporteurs (who write reports for EP and committees and influence content).



Where the UK felt strongly that it did not want to follow EU law (and had not been able to address that concern during negotiation on the text) it had previously sought and found compromise via ‘opt outs’.

The UK had the greatest number of ‘opt outs’ of any Member State, including:

  • Working Time Directive where the UK had a number of opt outs;
  • Rebate on UK contribution to the EU budget;
  • Non-inclusion in the Eurozone;
  • Non-inclusion in the Schengen area (UK retained passport checks on its borders);
  • David Cameron’s negotiation with the EU had secured an important UK opt-out on closer political union. Cameron’s agreement also included increased UK veto powers on Commission proposals.
Recent decline

Whilst still strong (because of the reasons outlined above, the size of the UK economy and our capabilities in other areas like financial services and security), the UK’s influence had been declining over recent years before 2016:

The UK had 73 MEPs, but 29 (over one third) represented the Brexit Party (previously 24 with UKIP). These MEPs played no constructive role in EP.  Even without Brexit, the Brexit Party and UKIP had significantly weakened UK influence within the European Parliament and the Commission.


Civil service influence

The UK Civil Service influenced the EU legislative process because UK civil servants dealt with Commission at a number of levels:

  • Via secondment where they had significant control over the drafting of proposals;
  • Engagement with Commission Officials during drafting stage (this was viewed as the most productive time for seeking changes);
  • Once a proposal had been made, UK civil servants, who specialised on that topic, attended Working Group meetings with representatives of other member states to consider detail and suggest amendments to the text (a lot of the real work on this was done in the margins and before meetings).

NB: when downsizing of Civil Service put pressure on officials’ ability to go to Brussels, much of this work was routed through UK Permanent Representation staff in Brussels who were not technical experts.

To ensure that civil servants were pursuing the correct policy path, they:

  • Sought Ministerial agreement and agreement of European Scrutiny committees of Parliament and Lords
  • Updated Minister and parliamentary committees as discussions continue.
  • Prior to UK agreeing text at EU level, sought agreement from Parliament – albeit UK’s power to change EU legislation at that point was very limited, This element was an area of concern that the UK sought to address with the inclusion of a ‘red card’ in Cameron’s negotiation.
Directive implementation

The other area where the UK could modify EU legislation was via the implementation of an EU Directive when ‘woolly language’ often allows for flexibility of approach. Some notable examples: bank bonuses and Audit Directive that had over 20 Member State options.

Ironically, the UK had a reputation for ‘gold plating’ EU law, i.e. going further than EU regulation required. Although this was generally less true recently, it conflicted with the view that UK ‘had to do what Brussels says’.

Democratic deficit


No democratic system is perfect. Some claim that the EU is undemocratic, referring to a “democratic deficit”. Others regard it as more democratic than the UK. The following material considers how the EU democratic deficit might arise and what could be done to reduce it.

Please note that this section offers a point of view and is different to other parts of the FactBase. This section is structured:

  • Voter attitudes to the EU
  • EU institutions and sovereign member states
    • Eurozone and Lisbon Treaty
    • Role of the Commission
  • Legislative process
    • National governments
  • Perception and transparency
    • UK journalists and media
  • Voter interest in MEP elections
    • EU proportional voting system
  • Conclusion


Voter attitudes to the EU

Despite the EU’s shortcomings, EU citizens seem to like it. Voters know the EU could be improved but the majority value its benefits.

In May 2018, the Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament showed that 67% of EU citizens thought that membership had benefited their country, the highest level since 1983. Just 23% took the opposite view. In the UK, 53% still thought it had been a benefit, outnumbering those thinking that it had not by nearly two to one.

Even in Italy, 44% said benefits outweighed disadvantages compared to 41% who said the opposite. The Eurobarometer results are consistent with the regular Pew Research Center surveys, the most recent of which was published in June 2017.

European Parliament

Pew Research Center


EU institutions and sovereign member states

The EU is a union of sovereign, democratic nations. It is an international organisation, not a state, that follows democratic principles. To join the EU, a country must be a democracy. Similarly, MEPs are elected through proportional representation, which is seen by many as the most democratic way of representing the views of citizens.

In limited areas defined by treaty, EU institutions can enforce laws, once collectively approved, on all the member states. The Council of Ministers (ministerial representatives from the 27 EU governments) and the European Parliament amend and pass EU laws, which the Commission proposes.

Most international member organisations experience tensions with their members (think of the UN, WHO or FIFA). In the case of the EU, there can be tensions between the EU institutions and the member states’ governments, parliaments, and citizens. However, the EU sometimes struggles to decide how to respond to serious threats to democracy in member states – such as those recently in Poland and Hungary.

The EU Parliament can seem unwieldy and some believe it should provide stronger challenge to the Commission. On the other hand, when MEPs propose amendments to draft EU directives or legislation, they are usually adopted. This is in stark contrast to the UK Parliament where the government regards such amendments as exceptions to be resisted.

The heads of member states (through the European Council) take Important EU decisions, although Parliament will usually have a say. The Council meets at least twice every six months to set the direction for the Commission and to monitor progress. For example, the quarterly Council meetings were often milestones in the Brexit process.

Eurozone and Lisbon Treaty

The Eurozone and, in particular, the ECB. Central bankers run the ECB technocratically and have made politically unpalatable decisions that affect the Eurozone– such as the punitive deficit reduction targets in Greece and in Ireland. Weak political governance and oversight of the ECB has been recognised as an issue for several years – and some regard the failure to address it as evidence of a democratic deficit.

The Lisbon Treaty. In 2004, a Constitutional Convention on the Future of Europe proposed greater powers for EU institutions. It also (in limited areas) let the EU enter into agreements on behalf of the member states. The proposed treaty changes were the subject of referendums in Spain, the Netherlands and France. Spain approved but France and the Netherlands rejected. However, after some relatively superficial modifications including removal of references to ‘constitution’, the heads of all member states approved the proposals in late 2007. The Irish then held two referendums on the Treaty. The first in 2008 rejected the Treaty, but the second in 2009 approved it.

Many saw the pushing through of the Lisbon Treaty as evidence that the EU and some national governments circumvent the wishes of citizens – creating democratic deficits at both levels.

For the UK, a key test of whether a democratic deficit existed was whether the EU passed laws that UK citizens did not like.

  • The Lisbon Treaty refined Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in relation to several EU competences (such as environment, agriculture and transport). The aim was to improve the speed of EU decision-making. On sensitive areas like defence and foreign policy, member states continue to have a veto. The changes meant that the UK (and any other large member state) could be outvoted more often.
    • The Council of Ministers votes on all EU legislation. Under QMV, a law passes if it is backed by 16 out of 28 countries that make up at least 65% of the EU population. The UK has 13% of the EU population, so got a 13% vote share.
  • The change to QMV did not mean that the UK failed to get what it wanted. Research by the London School of Economics found that the UK was on the winning side 87% of the time between 2009-15 in the Council of Ministers. Even where the UK was on the losing side of a vote it did not seem to cause major problems.
  • Despite these concerns, interviews with Brexit-supporting politicians show that they find it hard to identify specific EU laws that they would like to change.
Source: Does the UK win or lose in the Council of Ministers?, Simon Hix and Sara Hagemann, LSE blog, 2016


Role of the Commission

When people talk about ‘unelected bureaucrats in Brussels’, they usually mean the European Commission, the civil servants of the EU. The Commission’s powers rest on treaties which EU national governments negotiate and decide. All member state parliaments then ratify the treaty changes (in some states, like Ireland, by referendums).

  • The President of the Commission leads the cabinet of 27 Commissioners, which meets every Wednesday.  The President sets the detailed agenda for the Commission within overall objectives approved in advance by the European Parliament.
  • The European Parliament has the power to dismiss the Commission before the end of its term.
  • The twenty-seven Commissioners are appointed from each member state. This ensures balanced representation of the member states but means that some Commissioners may not be the best people for the job (a feature of most political appointments). The larger countries usually fill Commissioner positions for the more important areas.
  • The Commissioners, who are political appointees, are the ministers of the EU. The European Parliament approves their appointments, but they are not elected. Whereas, in the UK and most other member states, ministers of state are usually selected from elected politicians. However, in the UK, MPs who lose elections are sometimes appointed as ministers (such as Zac Goldsmith) and/or elevated to the House of Lords.
  • Civil servants staff the Commission’s ministries (‘Directorates’), many on secondment from their home governments. A Director General, a senior civil servant, heads each Directorate. There are relatively few civil servants in the Commission and the other EU institutions for the complex task of serving 27 nations. For example, total EU staff numbers (about 46,000) are similar to two large UK county councils.


Legislative process

The EU is rules-based and the laws of the EU (where they apply) have primacy over national law in member states. A key difference between the Commission and national legislatures is that the Commission is the sole initiator of legislation and regulation. The Council and the Parliament may amend but they cannot propose. However, the idea that the Commission imposes laws is wrong, because of the formulation, review, amend and approval processes:

  • The European Council (the leaders of the member states) sets the legislative agenda for the Commission.
  • The Commission drafts, enforces and monitors compliance with EU laws, but it does not pass them.
  • Laws are passed through a ‘co-decision’ process involving the three bodies. This includes the drafting of detailed regulation (for example the Capital Requirements Regulation which complements the Capital Requirements Directive), which, when passed, has the force of law in all member states and does not need to be transposed into national law.
  • The co-decision process means that European Parliament and the Council of Ministers usually amend the laws that the Commission drafts. By contrast, in the UK, it is usually seen as a major event if Parliament amends laws proposed by the government or if the Lords suggests amendments (as we saw with the EU Withdrawal Bill).
  • Specialist committees of member state ministers, such as the Economics and Financial Affairs Council usually require drafting changes.  In the preparation of EU regulation, industry bodies, regulatory authorities and others may provide input to the Commission directly and/or through their own MEPs and governments.

For details on the implications for making EU law, please see the section on sovereignty and law.

National governments

Some believe that a national government can use the EU legislative process to initiate unpopular laws secretly with the Commission and hide behind blaming Brussels. If true, this could be a route for a government to avoid scrutiny from its parliament. As we have seen with Brexit, the UK Parliament seems to have more than enough on its hands holding the UK government to account domestically. There is also a danger that a focus on domestic issues may lead to lack of member-state scrutiny of the EU.

Others believe that the EU acts as a source of welcome long-term initiatives on, for example the environment, that short-term national governments would not see as politically rewarding. Similarly, the ECJ has often upheld citizens’ rights against the wishes of national government or large corporations (see section on Sovereignty and Law). For example, the EU Competition Commissioner can block mergers and fine multinational firms with large penalties. In June 2017, the Commission fined Google €2.42 billion for abusing dominance as a search engine by giving illegal advantage to its own comparison shopping service.

Source: LSE, How does the EU actually work?, 2016


Perception and transparency

The public can have a misleading impression of what the EU does. This starts with political expediency: national politicians across the EU are often guilty of blaming the EU for things for which they are responsible (e.g. national gold-plating of EU regulation). The same politicians are quite happy to take credit for popular EU initiatives (e.g. data regulation, environmental policies, reduced credit card charges).

Voters in the EU (not just the UK) often misunderstand the structure of the EU, the roles of its presidents and how they are appointed. The EU institutional structure is complex, but the roles are defined, and the methods of appointment are often more democratic than, say, the appointment of UK senior civil servants. The complexity, though, may look like inaccessibility and lack of transparency to many citizens.

The UK parliament’s own interactions with the EU are not transparent to voters and parliament has not been pro-active in engaging with the EU. The Electoral Reform Society has suggested that the UK parliament could have played a bigger and more visible role in holding the EU to account, by emulating the Danish approach to the EU. In Denmark, MPs question their ministers and give them a negotiating mandate before they go to European councils, whereas, UK ministers inform parliament after the event.

Voters are not alone in having a hazy understanding of the EU. The Brexit debate has shown many UK MPs, government ministers and journalists to be surprisingly ignorant of the EU, its structure and its rules.

UK journalists and media

Journalism that holds politicians to account is a fundamental feature of an effective democracy. In the UK, the media did not pay as much attention to EU politicians and the Commission as they did to their UK counterparts (or to the US). The media’s lack of focus on the EU contributed to lack of UK public visibility over the EU. Some described this as ‘censorship by omission’. It also meant that the media did not try to hold the EU to account as much as they tried with the UK government.

Several UK media outlets compounded the problem by providing a steady stream of misinformation and Euro-myths. In the UK, the public had been deliberately misinformed. This forced the Commission to set up a team to rebut euro-myths that appear in the British media. The topics are many and varied (see Figure 1.5). Following the UK’s departure, the EU no longer maintains the list, which has been archived.

Lack of media attention to the EU could signify lack of public interest but also reflects lack of transparency and access to the EU’s institutions and its leaders. The Commission holds weekly press conferences and the proceedings of the parliament are televised. 




Voter interest in MEP elections

Voters have elected MEPs directly since 1979. Generally the voter turnout for MEP elections is lower than turnout for domestic elections (see Figure 1.6).

  • Turnout for EU elections has been on a downward trend across the EU from a high of 62.0% in 1979 to 42.6% in 2014.
  • UK turnout for EU elections was lower than the EU average but had increased from 32.4% to 35.6% in the same period.
  • In the UK, turnout for general elections is much higher. For the latest national parliamentary elections, the turnout was 68.8%, but the UK ranked 11th of the EU28 for turnout.

Some experienced observers feel that the election of MEPs weakened the links between national governments and the EU. Before 1979, EU business was undertaken by nominated representatives from national governments. So, the link between national and EU government was clear. There was certainly a lack of UK voter engagement with the EU – only one in 10 could name their MEP.

MEP elections are different to national elections. The style of electing MEPs has an in-built disconnect with EU-wide issues. Elections are not based on manifestos, unless the party has a clear single objective such as UKIP. Similarly, the political groupings in the European Parliament do not coalesce around EU-wide manifesto objectives at the time of elections.

UK MEPs tended to identify with their domestic political party allegiance but with no specific EU agenda. Unsurprisingly, voters tended to decide largely on national, not European issues.

Source: House of Commons, Turnout at elections, Commons Briefing Paper 8060, 26 August 2021



EU proportional voting system 

For a description of the proportional voting system for the European elections, please click here.

Our Excel model shows how the d’Hondt system works and allows you to model different scenarios. Now of historical interest for the UK, the modeller brings the EU proportional voting system alive. It’s simple to use and allows you to input vote shares by party for UK regions. The model then automatically calculates how many seats each party wins.

The model is loaded with regional data for the 2014 results, the ComRes poll of 9 May 2019 and the Best for Britain poll of 18 May and the ComRes poll of 21 May.


As with all democratic systems, the EU has a democratic deficit. However it is important to distinguish between an apparent deficit that may arise through misunderstanding and misinformation and a real deficit where the mechanisms to exercise democratic accountability need to be improved.

The more difficult judgment is how serious the deficit is and whether it matters. The EU says that it recognises that it must take steps to engage more effectively with voters to give it greater democratic legitimacy. The Commission’s current agenda includes this as an issue to address.

So, what actions might be taken to improve democratic accountability of the EU? A full discussion is beyond the scope of the FactBase but some fairly obvious steps could include:

  • Foster greater transparency in involvement with the EU at national level and better integration of the governance of the EU with national parliaments. This is by no means easy or simple to achieve but it seems essential for the democratic deficit to be addressed.
  • Reduce the perception gap. Part of the democratic deficit is a matter of perception. EU structures could be simplified and communicated more clearly. For example, agencies that have been set up with good intentions but duplicate or complicate
    unnecessarily could be wound down.
  • Encourage greater media involvement and improve accessibility to improve accountability. The President of the Commission and the 28 Commissioners could take steps to be more proactive in engaging with the media and vice versa. For example, this could include regular scheduled country visits to national parliaments.
  • Implement changes regarding the governance of the ECB and the Eurozone. Recent statements from President Macron and others have proposed changes, for example through closer fiscal alignment and the appointment of a Eurozone finance minister. Such changes will only be sustainable if democratic legitimacy accompanies them. The EU and national governments will need to find ways to involve citizens more directly in these developments.

The EU is still young as an institution and has been very successful in its first 60 years. To maintain that success, it needs to adapt and evolve. As with most large organisations, change is difficult. The Brexit vote will likely prove to be a catalyst for accelerated change in the EU.

The big questions are how should the EU change; and, what should be the mechanisms to drive that change forward and hold the EU responsible for delivering it? Brexit provides a unique opportunity for the EU to find the answers.

The Lure of Greatness, Anthony Barnett, 2017
The Great Deception, Christopher Booker and Richard North, 2016 (third edition)

Last updated on 23rd May 2024 by Richard Barfield