News agenda: What is the EU really all about?

The European Parliament
The European Parliament

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There’s often a lot of confusion about the make-up of the European Union, what it does and how it affects everyday life.

Sceptics say the institution, which oversees Europe’s member states, is too complicated and too expensive.

Supporters of Britain staying in the EU will say it works well to ensure everyone in Europe gets as fair deal and a good quality of life. But Eurosceptics and lead members of the Brexit campaign – which is all about promoting why the UK should get out of Europe – believe taxpayers’ cash is being wasted being part of an elite club and that money instead should go back into public services. They want decisions about Britain made by UK parliament, and not from Brussels or Strasbourg.

The EU is broken into three segments – The European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. The Commission is the civil service arm of the EU and is made up of commissioners, heads of departments responsible for a wide range of issues such as the environment, transport and public health.

The European Council is a collection of mini councils again covering different topics. Its membership is made up of ministers and the prime ministers of EU countries. Then the European Parliament is made up of 750 directly-elected MEPs whose functions are similar to those of MPs in Britain.

In the UK, there are 72 MEPs, 10 of whom cover the south-east region. This patch stretches from the New Forest, up to Milton Keynes, across to Guildford and Surrey, but excluding London, and across to Margate in the east.

The commissioners for the European Commission draw up reports on proposals which are then taken before the European Council and the European Parliament. Such a proposal could be something as specific as doubling the size of lorries on EU roads.

The European Council debates a proposal that’s put forward on its own. Then, the views of the European Council, together with the formal proposal and report produced by the European Commission, is put to the European Parliament in Strasbourg for debate and put to the vote.

Each MEP is appointed onto a committee that oversee issues – which could be from human and wildlife trafficking to transport – and those committees can lobby for changes and call for the European Commission to produce a plan to be voted on.

For a proposal to be approved by the European Parliament, it needs the backing of the majority of its 750 members. On matters related to EU budgets, two-thirds of the chamber need to agree.

Eurosceptics claim the European Commission has the overriding say over what happens in the EU – and that MEPs have little influence.

The relationship between the European Parliament and the European Council is like the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Council has the final say if the European Parliament fails to agree on a particular issue. MEPs meet in Strasbourg once a month for debates and votes. But the majority of their work happens in Brussels – where committees meet to go over plans and ideas to present to commissioners. The European Union body is not to be confused with the Council of Europe – a completely separate entity primarily focused on human rights. The Council of Europe is made up of 48 states, 28 of which are members of the European Union.

BEING AN MEP

An MEP’s annual gross salary is €96,240, with the cost being met from the European Parliament’s budget. It’s subject to an EU tax and accident insurance contribution, after which the monthly salary is €6,250.

Green south-east MEP Keith Taylor believes he’s providing ‘value for money’ through his work and says he’s working as hard now as he’s ‘ever done in his life’.

Mr Taylor said: ‘It’s about on par with MPs. What I can say is, I have never worked in my entire life as I have done in the last six years as an MEP.

‘Prior to this, I spent 11 years as a council authority councillor in Brighton and Hove which came with a very, very low allowance.’

Asked if he thought the salary given to MEPs is justified, he said: ‘It depends. I think I am providing good value for money.

‘People look to me to make life better than it was before.

‘For example, I have led calls to reduce the amount of sugar, in baby food, from 30 per cent. As a result, the commission will come back with a plan closer to five per cent.’

But Ukip MEP Ray Finch, who says one of his primary aims is to get Britain out of Europe, said: ‘None of it can be justified, because nothing is achieved, it’s all nodded through. What we do is say no, and come back and tell people why they said no.’

WHAT HAS THE EU DONE FOR US?

WHAT has the EU ever done to help Britain and my way of life?

It’s a question that people ask a lot – and is one of the reasons why many are sceptical about the UK retaining its EU membership and believe it should go it alone.

Proponents of staying in the EU say that among the areas in which it has achieved results are:

n Lobbying for cleaner air and beaches

n Ensuring animal welfare is upheld by countries in Europe

n Raising awareness about the importance of anti-racism

n Fighting for data protection

n Promoting gender equality

n Campaigning for the rights of the LGBT community

n Ensuring people maintain the right to live, work, study or retire abroad

n Regulate big business

n Promote renewable energy

n Ensuring workers have rights at their workplace

n Restrict the use of pesticides

Membership of the EU also means Britain has access to a single trade market, which means it can freely trade with other EU countries.

People who wish the UK to stay in the EU say the UK would lose its right to a single market and be forced into a free trade agreement.

That would mean trade arrangements being broken down sector by sector – so in areas like chemicals, medicine, agriculture and transport – and there would need to be periods of negotiation.

However, those in favour of Brexit say that other countries would still be keen to trade with the UK, even outside the single market.