I Went To Brussels To Find Out How the EU Actually Works


Like most Brits in the run up to tomorrow’s referendum, I know surprisingly little about how the EU actually works. The lack of knowledge from the general public is probably why both the Remain and Leave campaigns have done so well with scare tactics, and how they’ve got away with some very dubious “facts”. 

I’m about to graduate with a politics degree, so it’s extra embarrassing for me. In order to further my knowledge and actually be able to argue well with people on the opposite side to me (rather than just repeating what I read in the Guardian that morning) I decide to go to the belly of the beast and learn first hand about the ins and outs of European Politics.

Here are a few things I learned. 

Brussels is really really cool. 

I’d really recommend everyone does this. In a couple of hours chatting with my MEP I learned more  than I’ve learned in the months of campaigning and avidly following referendum news. It takes two hours to get to Brussels on the train from King’s Cross/St. Pancras and it’s super cheap if you plan it well – you can do it in a day.

Plus, Brussels is an amazing city with loads of cool culture and bars  – a great weekend away, and it’s not too pricey. Before I went, I emailed all 10 of my MEPs but the only one that was able to meet me was Richard Ashworth, the former leader of the Conservatives in European Parliament. His assistant, Claire Williams, who showed me around is a fellow Southampton Politics graduate.

I've come to Brussels to find out how European Parliament actually works, and obviously drink lots of beer 🇧🇪🍻

A photo posted by Bridie Pearson-Jones (@bridiepjones) on

European Parliament is very different to British Parliament 


It’s much more modern, and there’s a lot less name-calling and silliness.

MEPs are nothing like MPs

Unlike an MP that represents ~100,000 people, MEPs work in groups and represent millions of people. They’re elected through proportional representation instead of first-past-the-post. If you live in the South East (Isle of Wight, East Sussex, West Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire) your MEPs are Nigel Farage, Raymond Finch and Diane James (UKIP), Janice Atkinson (Independent, ex-UKIP), Daniel Hannan, Nirj Deva, and Richard Ashworth (Conservative), Catherine Bearder (Lib Dem), Keith Taylor (Green), and Anneliese Dodds (Labour).

There are 73 MEPs in the UK, elections take place every five years and the last elections in 2014 only had a turnout of 35%. Across the whole country, UKIP have the most seats in European Parliament (23), Labour have 20, and Conservatives have 19. The rest come from The Green Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Sinn Fein, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

The UK is divided into twelve electoral regions with three to ten MEPs each (depending on size of population). The regions are: – London (8 MEPs), South East (10 MEPs),  South West (6 MEPs), Eastern (7 MEPs), East Midlands (5 MEPs), West Midlands (7 MEPs),  North East (3 MEPs), North West (8 MEPs), Yorkshire and Humber (6 MEPs), Scotland (6 MEPs), Wales (4 MEPs), Northern Ireland (3 MEPs). You can find out who your MEP is here. 

MEPs aren’t lazy 

Well most of them anyway. A lot of people think MEPs don’t do a lot – but they often sit on committees and most of them are very active. The top 30 (of 73) British MEPs turn out at least 90% of the time, and only one (Nigel Farage), is there less than 50% of the time.

MEPs don’t sit with other Brits – they sit in parties according to their political alignment.

In European Parliament, everyone buddies up and sits with their equivalents from across the EU. The groups are:-

  • European People’s Party Group (EPP), the centre right and the biggest group in Parliament. No British Parliamentary groups sit with this group, but Merkel’s party (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) do.
  •  Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) who Labour sit with.
  • European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a right-wing, vaguely Eurosceptic party who campaign for reform in the EU. The Conservatives and Ulster Unionist Party sit here.
  • Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE/ADLE), a liberal centrist group, this is where the Lib Dems sit.
  • European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), a socialist/communist group, this is where Sinn Fein sit.
  • The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), is the group that contains the Green, nationalist, and regionalist parties. It’s where SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green Party sit.
  • Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), a Eurosceptic group, this is where UKIP sit.
  • Europe of Nations and Freedom, a far-right, anti-immigration group, over half of this group is made up of Front Nationale members, it’s where Janice Atkinson, an Independent ex-UKIP MEP sits.
  • Non-Intrisics (NI), 15 MEPs (including the DUP), sit here – they’re not aligned with any group


The democratic deficit argument is a bit silly

How is a trade deal made in the EU?
How is a trade deal made in the EU?

Trade agreements are negotiated by the European Commission (they’re the unelected bureaucrats you hear about). Once they’ve been approved by every single member states parliament, and by the European Parliament they can then by made into law.

EU membership costs around £9.8 billion a year. In 2014 the payments were the following: 

The public sector receipts goes on payments to help farmers (agricultural guarantee fund), support for rural business (agricultural fund for rural development), and to improve employment opportunities and increase skills (European social fund). It also goes on supporting research and innovation, small businesses and a low carbon economy (European regional development fund).

About 0.6% of income tax goes on the EU, that’s half as much as overseas aid, and 1/40th of what goes on welfare. As a percentage of Gross National Income, the UK pays the least in Europe. 

 The UK are the fourth largest contributor to the EU (in 2014), paying about 10% of the total budget. Germany, France, and Italy pay more. 73% of the EU’s revenue comes from GNI. 14% from VAT and 13% form duties and levies.

Most of the EU budget is spent on agriculture.

London is the biggest trader of Euros.

London trades more Eurobonds than the rest of the EU combined. In 2011, the European Central Bank argued that non-Eurozone countries (such as the UK) should move into the Eurozone if they want to do business in Euros. The European Court of Justice ruled against this – meaning the City could continue to trade – because the UK is within the EU.

About 55,000 people work for the EU.

  • 30,040 in the EU commission (with 44 departments, each for a specific policy)
  • 7,520 in EU Parliament.
  • 3,048 in EU Council.

The UK’s trade with the rest of the EU accounts for 45% of British exports (£227 billion), and 53% of British imports (£288 billion). 7% of EU exports go to the UK. If the UK’s exports to the EU declined by 10%, the UK would need to double their trade with India and China to make up for this. 

There are 2,864,264 EU Nationals  and 5,678,856 immigrants from the rest of the world living in the UK.  There are 1,369,000 Brits living elsewhere in the EU and 4,666,000 British emigrants living elsewhere in the world.

Freedom of movement means that EU nationals have the right to move anywhere in the UK to live, study and work. The Schengen Treaty allows border free travel between those countries – but the UK and Ireland are not part of the Schengen, hence the UK has border controls (you have to show your passport to get in). The largest group of EU nationals living in the UK are from Poland (around 700,000) followed by Ireland (500,000),  Germany (just over 100,000) and France (150,000).

There’s a lot more to Europe than just Brussels. There are four official locations of the EU: – Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, and Frankfurt. 

There are seven institutions of the EU.

  1. The European Council. This compromises all the heads of state (or government) in the EU member states, as well as the President of the European Council (Donald Tusk), and the President of the European Commission. It meets about once every six months in Brussels.
  2. Council of the European Union (often referred to the Council of Ministers), is very closely linked to the European Council, and has the same structure and staff, but is different. They also meet in Brussels and decide policy and the direction of the EU.
  3. European Parliament. These are the people 751 directly elected MEPs, they meet in Brussels and Strasbourg . They’re directly elected once every five years (although turn out in the UK isn’t very good).
  4. European Commission, chaired by Jean-Cluade Juncker, had 28 other members (one per member state) who propose legislation and write laws. They also meet in Brussels.
  5. Court of Justice of the European Union, is three separate courts in Luxembourg (the Court of Justice, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal) and is the chief judicial authority for the EU.
  6.  European Central Bank, based in Frankfurt, is the Central bank for the Euro and the place that administers monetary policy of the Eurozone (of which there are 19 states).
  7. European Court of Auditors, based in Luxembourg, and works as a professional external investigatory audit agency – despite its misleading name, it doesn’t have any judicial authority.

The EU protects against discrimination

EU law guarantees particular rights for workers as well as protecting citizens against discrimination based on sex, age, disability, race, sexual orientation and religion.

 What will happen if we leave?

Nobody knows. If we did, it might be much clearer how to vote. Professor Michael Dougan at the University of Liverpool outlines the most likely things that could happen if we vote to Brexit here (scroll forward to about 12 minutes in).


Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union sets out the procedure for leaving, but if the UK votes to leave, it will be the first country ever to.

Everything is based on assumptions, but people are pretty unanimously agreed that there will be a short term economic hit in the UK. Leave campaigners describe this as a ‘hiccup’, remainers say it could cause a recession, and even trigger a global financial crisis. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (an independent body) say the UK economy will have £20-40 million less in public finances by 2020.

Have a look at this information and make a decision. Whatever you decide, make sure you exercise your right to vote – it’s not like a General Election, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. 





Editor 2015-16. Politics Editor 2014-15. Third year Politics and Economics student, I've written for every section but primarily write politics, opinion and news pieces. I also write for The Edge, Kettle Mag, The National Student, The Student Times and the Independent and do lots of work with Surge Radio.

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