Understanding the EU debate

Many people are still saying that they don’t understand what’s at stake in the EU referendum. As part of an independent, not for profit, organisation I have created this guide to explain what the points on each side are.

Map of EU member countries

The European Union is a series of international agreements that 28 European countries have made between themselves, which set up institutions like the European Parliament through which these countries cooperate and reach agreements as a whole. The treaties set out limits on what policy areas the EU can get involved with. Decision-making is partly based on agreements between national governments, and partly through directly elected MEPs.

How it works

The leaders of each country meet to agree broad policy direction, by consensus.

Each country proposes a ‘commissioner’ who will head up a policy department within the EU. Together they are called ‘the Commission’ and propose new laws- agreeing by consensus or a clear majority

These laws have to be agreed to by both:

– The relevant ministers from each country (i.e. if the policy is about agriculture, the agricultural ministers vote).

– And the European Parliament- which is made up of members (called MEPs) who are directly elected by the population of each country. Foreign policy is an exception, with decisions just made by the foreign ministers from each country.

The head of the Commission is called the President. The leaders of each EU country decide between them who to put forward for this role. They make this decision on the basis of which group, or groups, got most support from voters during the European elections. The European Parliament then gets to vote on whether to accept the makeup of the European Commission as a whole, including its President. The current President is the leader of the group that got most MEPs during the last European elections.



It makes trade easier in Europe. Countries have agreed to remove any restrictions on products, money, or people crossing the borders between them. They have also agreed to make business regulations similar across the whole area- meaning business don’t have to adjust to different laws in each of these countries, and that consumers can buy across this area with more confidence.

It helps us stand up for things together. Regulations are often made to protect things that aren’t otherwise looked after when businesses compete with each other- such as standards of environmental protection, worker’s rights, or consumer safety. If a country stands up for these things on its own then it places its businesses at a disadvantage versus countries with lower standards- ultimately this can cause businesses to move elsewhere. The growth of global trade and huge multi-national companies has made this particularly difficult for national governments. Together the EU countries make up the largest economy in the world- when we create standards together this market cannot simply be ignored by businesses. The EU has helped us achieve things like making our beaches cleaner, banning leaded petrol, improving maternity pay and improving rights to time off work.

Better trade, and higher standards, around the world. As well as making trade easier between them, the EU countries also negotiate collectively with countries outside Europe to agree similar measures with them. Negotiating collectively means that we act as part of the largest economy in the world- giving significantly increased clout. This means we can make sure these deals work in our interest, including pushing other countries to conform with our higher levels of working rights and environmental protections, rather than having large countries set the terms of these deals. If we left the EU, we would also leave these trade deals.

Jean-Claude Juncker the President of the EU

Jean Claude Juncker, President of the EU

‘Brexiters’ may struggle to achieve their aims, and our economy is likely to suffer. Some people are concerned that EU regulations go too far, placing our businesses at too much of a disadvantage compared to countries without these rules- if we leave we could remove ourselves from some of these rules. However, we would almost certainly keep many EU regulations in order to continue trading easily with the EU. We would have to renegotiate our current arrangements. We would be doing so on the back foot having just undermined the EU project; and from a position in which our trade with the EU is more important to us than it is to them. Other European countries have negotiated favourable access to the EU market by adopting most new EU regulations while having very little say in what these regulations are, plus having to accept the free movement of EU citizens and continuing to pay a membership fee. It is widely accepted that our economy would suffer considerably until we re-negotiate some international trade deals[1]. After this some argue that we could benefit from greater flexibility by working more closely with commonwealth countries- but we would now be negotiating with much less clout than as part of the EU. It is generally argued that our economy could only improve in this scenario if we stripped away many of our high standards of regulation[2]. There is a considerable body of economic study that believes we are likely to end up worse off[3]. Worse trade does not just affect those who sell abroad- other British companies who supply these exporters will also be hit, as would the tax returns that pay for public services. Large employers like car manufacturers may well leave the UK if we no longer have favourable access to the EU market[4].

Our industries may be vulnerable. Taxes charged on importing to the EU help protect some of our industries from currently intense global competition, with exceptions for the very poorest countries.

The EU is a force for freedom and peace in a dangerous world. EU countries agree on mass to stop certain people trading with the EU, to suspend any money they have here, and to ban them from entering. These measures are used to tackle terrorist groups, and to put pressure on countries or organisations that threaten basic human rights or global peace. Alongside this the EU countries also coordinate some of their spending on international development- which is only given to countries that meet basic human rights standards. A small portion is also used to campaign against torture and to defend persecuted groups around the world. Trade deals with the EU, and EU membership are conditional on basic standards of democracy and freedom from persecution. After the Cold War there were concerns that Eastern Europe may return to dictatorships- instead the attractiveness of the EU encouraged them to embrace the standards of democracy needed to receive assistance from, trade with, and eventually join this group. Similar carrots are being used today to promote democracy and basic human rights in near neighbours like Belarus and Turkey.  The ‘soft power’ of the EU is a considerable means for promoting basic standards that we take for granted in the face of powerful countries that lack these, like Russia and China. It has also encouraged countries with a very recent history of conflict to work together democratically across borders. For its work for peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe it has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Outside the EU our global standing would be smaller. Within the EU we are a large and influential country within a large and influential group. This makes us diplomatically attractive to countries around the world. It is foolish to think that our history would preserve our position of respect and influence when faced with the realities of our comparatively small size and role outside the EU in a future world of huge and growing countries like China, India, and Brazil.

Better transparency for trade deals than the alternatives. There are many concerns about how effectively democracy works in the EU. There have also been concerns about the terms of trade deals, and the secrecy that accompanies their negotiation[6]. However, it can well be argued that similar deals outside the EU attract even less scrutiny, being solely agreed between diplomats. And that actually the democratic forum of the EU, despite its limitations, is having tangible impacts on improving global standards for how trade deals work[7]– which would be threatened without it.

We can easily move between, and live in, any EU countries. If we leave, and particularly if we then try to limit EU migration, we risk losing some of this freedom ourselves. Groups that most benefit from current flexibility- like students, academics, scientists, and business people- could face new barriers.

Who wants to remain?

A majority of Conservative MPs. The Labour Party (with the exception of 7 out of 229 MPs). The Scottish National Party. The Liberal Democrats. The Green Party. Plaid Cymru.

The leaders of the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan.

The National Farmers Union, The Royal College of Midwives, The Trades Union Congress, Unison, GMB, USDAW, Unite, Community.

A number of business leaders, including the Confederation of British Industry.



There is a lack of democracy. The balance between having directly elected representatives, and getting agreement between national governments, means that the public have less direct power than at national level. Looking at institutions only gives half the picture. There is a concern that in reality much of the actual policy formation is done by civil servants, listening to big business or other lobby groups, rather than being properly scrutinised by elected officials. Public engagement at a EU level has been limited. Our national democracy has formed over centuries, with a slow growth of news media and other parts of our culture that support how it functions. Large numbers of voters have been brought together in the EU, and there is currently a lack of such cultural supports for this democracy.

There are too many regulations. Regulations can get in the way of business, raising prices, and making them vulnerable to international competition. Many people are annoyed that the EU is getting involved in controversial debates about an appropriate level of regulation- such as pushing for workers’ rights, instead of leaving these decisions to national governments. They argue that such policies go beyond what was envisaged when we first voted to join the EU in 1975. Some people feel that these regulations simply shouldn’t exist. As well as a concern about the degree of regulation, there are also concerns that often rules aren’t well made. It’s only fair to point out that alongside clear examples of bad regulation there has at times been some high-profile misreporting of EU laws and their motivation in the UK press[8]. While the EU has led to greater regulation in the UK, the UK has also influenced the direction of the EU- contributing to a lowering of regulation in other EU countries[9], and to a recent focus on stripping away excessive rules[10].


The UK prime minister at a meeting of EU heads of state

David Cameron at a meeting of EU heads of state

Other policies have worked badly. Fishing policy is an often-cited example. In an attempt to protect the stocks of fish by legislating against over-fishing, bans on landing too many fish were introduced. However, instead of preventing boats from catching too many fish in the first place, the legislation led to fishermen selecting the most lucrative fish to land and the wastefully throwing fish that had already been caught and killed back into the sea. This situation now been addressed, but is a good example of poor legislation. There are still concerns that smaller boats do not get a big enough share of fishing quotas, that other countries do not police agreements as diligently as the UK, and that the UK continues to suffer from a historical bad deal on European fishing rights. Agricultural policy is another example that was very wasteful prior to recent reforms, and that still attracts criticism, for instance for not doing enough to support smaller producers.

The European Arrest Warrant has led to injustice. The arrest warrant requires countries to help each other detain people who are charged with, or convicted of serious crimes, and send them to where the offence was committed to face justice. While the European Arrest Warrant has helped bring people to justice, it has also exposed Britons to terrible injustice at the hands of countries with lower standards of legal protection, like Greece[11].

Mission creep. As well as the EU getting involved in more controversial areas of law there are also concerns about the increasing role of the European Court of Justice. This court decides whether countries are properly implementing EU rules. Following an agreement that human rights principles have to be stuck to when enacting EU law, this court has now started to pass judgements on more controversial matters that some argue should be left to politicians[12]. (It’s important to realise that this is separate from the European Convention on Human Rights which is where most human rights cases come from, and is not part of the EU). Some people also dislike the cooperation that there has been between the militaries of EU countries, and are worried about this moving beyond the current limits[13].

It costs too much. Last year we paid £13 billion into the EU, 4.5 billion of which we got back here to spend within particular rules[14]. About two thirds of this goes on agricultural support, and investment to help poorer regions grow- which are funded at an EU- wide level.  Within these schemes rich countries pay a greater share, helping poorer countries develop, and helping the European-wide economy to grow. The rest basically goes on various forms of EU-wide cooperation. 6% of the budget goes on international work[15]– like development assistance and peacekeeping, though there is also a voluntary fund for this outside the budget[16]. 6% goes on administration[17]– things like running the Parliament and paying for translation. Some people argue that we would be better off if we spent this money in the UK. To calculate the impact of this it’s important to realise that we would be likely to continue to fund some of these things ourselves even if we did so outside the EU budget. Any savings should also be weighed up alongside wider economic impacts of these changes. Our membership fee is a comparatively small part of UK public spending.

We should reduce immigration. About 3 million people have moved into the UK from other EU countries[19], compared to about 1 million that have gone the other way[20]. There is some evidence that immigration from Eastern European countries has pushed wages down for the lowest paid in the UK[21], and has increased the bill for in-work benefits like tax credits[22]. High levels of immigration can also create problems for the social and cultural fabric of a country, even while immigration can also add things. The UK can only block entry to members of other EU countries if there are concerns about public safety and order[23]. To live in another EU country for more than a few months you need to have a job, or be able to support yourself[24]. Extra restrictions were put in place when a large group of Eastern European countries joined the EU, but the UK, Ireland and Sweden decided not to make use of these[25]. There is debate about whether EU migration has had a positive or negative impact on the UK economy overall[26] – having more people of working age is widely thought to be important to pay for the costs of our ageing population. It’s important to separate the impact of immigration out from wider problems in our society like levels of vocational education and low levels of house building and social housing. If Turkey joined the EU, there are fears about how many Turkish people might want to relocate to the UK. It is worth noting that all countries who are in the EU would have a veto on any new country joining, and Turkey would also have to reach certain standards before it could be considered.

The EU limits how our government can intervene in our own economy. The rules that prevent governments getting in the way of trade across EU borders also require that markets are somewhat opened up to competition rather than being solely run by the public sector in individual nation states[27]. These still allow some scope for the government to run things, but some people feel these restrictions are still too strong[28]. Recent trade deals have raised similar concerns[29]. In a different context the recent treatment of Greece raised concerns among some about the role of the EU. Unable to repay its debts, Greece was forced to undergo unpopular reforms in order to continue receiving funds from other EU countries and the International Monetary Fund. Some have argued this case was more about the actions of its creditors than the EU itself.

We should be exploring opportunities further afield. Rather than having to go through the EU , the UK should have the flexibility to form our own trade agreements with countries like those of the commonwealth. Inside the EU import taxes are used to protect European businesses and their standards from global competition (with exceptions for trade from the poorest countries). Some believe we should remove these restrictions in order to benefit from greater global trade. The Euro has come under considerable pressures – while the UK is not a member of the Eurozone, some people feel that we should be distancing ourselves further from the risks of this currency and concentrating our trade further afield.

Who wants to leave?

Just under half of the Conservative Party. UKIP. 7 out of Labour’s 229 MPs.

A number of business leaders.


How to vote

Don’t leave this decision up to other people who have thought about it less. Look up information from both sides, and from trustworthy sources, if you are unsure.

If you have not voted before and you are unsure about how it works, then read this information about how to cast your vote.



[1] http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21696517-most-estimates-lost-income-are-small-risk-bigger-losses-large-economic

[2] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/70d0bfd8-d1b3-11e5-831d-09f7778e7377.html#axzz4A1wSMFZ1 ; http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21696517-most-estimates-lost-income-are-small-risk-bigger-losses-large-economic

[3] http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/cbi-literature-review-of-the-impact-of-eu-membership-to-the-uk-economy/

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/05/27/brexit-would-slam-the-brakes-on-the-uks-hugely-successful-car-in/

[5] https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/griffin-carpenter/eu-common-fisheries-policy-has-helped-not-harmed-uk-fisheries-0

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/03/ttip-what-why-angry-transatlantic-trade-investment-partnership-guide

[7] http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2015/january/tradoc_153018.5%20Investment.pdf

[8] http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ECintheUK/euromyths-a-z-index/

[9] http://www.cer.org.uk/publications/archive/policy-brief/2016/brexit-and-eu-regulation-bonfire-vanities

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/371088/Cut-eu-red-tape_one-year-on.pdf

[11] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmhaff/615/61504.htm

[12] http://www.newlawjournal.co.uk/nlj/content/battle-giants

[13] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/551346/EPRS_BRI(2015)551346_EN.pdf

[14]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/483344/EU_finances_2015_final_web_09122015.pdf#page=44 ; https://fullfact.org/europe/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/

[15] http://europa.eu/about-eu/basic-information/money/expenditure/index_en.htm

[16] https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/funding/funding-instruments-programming/funding-instruments/european-development-fund_en

[17] http://europa.eu/about-eu/basic-information/money/expenditure/index_en.htm

[18] The UK government spent £333.6 billion last year on running government departments like health and transport; and our total public spending last year (factoring in pension, benefits, investments, and debt interest) was £746.7 billion. Https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/503272/PSS_February_2016.pdf#page=9 (I have quoted ‘total resource DEL’ as what is spent on running UK government departments. There is a guide to understanding info on UK public spending here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/how-to-understand-public-sector-spending/how-to-understand-public-sector-spending

[19] http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/migration1/population-by-country-of-birth-and-nationality/2014/rft-table-5-pop-by-cob-jan-14-to-dec-14.xls

[20] http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/data-and-resources/charts/eu-born-migrants-living-uk-and-rest-eu-2011-eu-census


[22] http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06955

[23] http://ec.europa.eu/justice/citizen/document/files/guide-free-mo-2013_en.pdf

[24] http://ec.europa.eu/justice/citizen/document/files/guide-free-mo-2013_en.pdf

[25] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25237742

[26] http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/migobs/briefing%20-%20Fiscal%20Impacts.pdf

[27] http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2015/10/02/sorry-nigel-nationalisation-is-not-against-eu-law/

[28] http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2015/10/02/sorry-nigel-nationalisation-is-not-against-eu-law/

[29] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/03/ttip-what-why-angry-transatlantic-trade-investment-partnership-guide