6.2 The European Union
The UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1 January 1973. The UK was not one of the original founding members even though it had played a significant role in World War II, in the establishment of the Council of Europe, in drafting of the ECHR and seeking peace in Europe. In 1946 the Prime Minister of the UK, Winston Churchill famously gave a speech in which he declared that ‘We must build a kind of United States of Europe.’ It is easy to forget now that at that time in the UK rationing, which had been introduced during the war, was still in place (rationing finally ended at midnight on 4 July 1954).
Although the UK was initially reluctant to join the EEC (which led to what we now know as the EU), its success meant that UK Governments felt it to be in the UK’s best interest to join. Following a number of attempts, membership was finally achieved in 1973. At the time the UK was suffering economic stagnation and an uncertain economic future. Membership has, however, never been universally popular across the UK. One of the reasons often given for this is that EU laws could be binding on the UK without having been approved or discussed by the UK Parliament.
There are a number of key EU institutions:
- the European Commission
- the Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers)
- the European Parliament
- the Court of Justice of the European Union.
These institutions complement each other in their legislative functions in order to deliver a body of law that applies to all the member states. The European Council brings together the EU leaders and sets the EU's political agenda. The European Council does not pass laws and should not be confused with the Council of the European Union which has law-making powers.
Box 1 An overview of the EU
The European Union is a unique economic and political union between 28 European countries that together cover much of the continent.
The EU was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. The first steps were to foster economic cooperation: the idea being that countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and so are more likely to avoid conflict.
The result was the European Economic Community (EEC), created in 1958, and initially increasing economic cooperation between six countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Since then, a huge single market has been created and continues to develop towards its full potential.
From economic to political union
What began as a purely economic union has evolved into an organisation spanning policy areas, from climate, environment and health to external relations and security, justice and migration. A name change from the European Economic Community (EEC) to the European Union (EU) in 1993 reflected this.
The EU is based on the rule of law: everything it does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its member countries.
The EU is also governed by the principle of representative democracy, with citizens directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament and Member States represented in the European Council and the Council of the EU.
Stability, a single currency, mobility and growth
The EU has delivered more than half a century of peace, stability and prosperity, helped raise living standards and launched a single European currency: the euro. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
Thanks to the abolition of border controls between EU countries, people can travel freely throughout most of the continent. And it has become much easier to live, work and travel abroad in Europe.
The single or ‘internal’ market is the EU’s main economic engine, enabling most goods, services, money and people to move freely. Another key objective is to develop this huge resource also in other areas like energy, knowledge and capital markets to ensure that Europeans can draw the maximum benefit from it.
Human rights and equality
One of the EU’s main goals is to promote human rights both internally and around the world. Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights: these are the core values of the EU. Since the Lisbon Treaty’s entry in force in 2009, the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights brings all these rights together in a single document. The EU’s institutions are legally bound to uphold them, as are EU governments whenever they apply EU law.
The EU has been an important source of law in the UK in particular areas, for example:
Over the last 20 years the EU has been responsible for many of the key developments in employment and equality law. In 1997 the Labour Government adopted the EU Social Charter and this has resulted in an increasingly comprehensive framework of anti-discrimination laws, family-friendly rights in the UK and also the establishment of a minimum wage and maximum working hours.
- Consumer protection
Most notably the Consumer Protection Act 1987 which introduced no-fault liability for consumers who are injured by defective products. Also The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (which aims to provide protection from misleading provisions in consumer contracts, such as use of small and illegible print, the imposition of unreasonable penalties on consumers and the use of clauses which allow the seller to exclude liability.
The laws made by the EU are often technical or commercially orientated with the aim of ensuring freedom of trade. For instance, the UK law on insider dealing (which prohibits people who have confidential and price-sensitive information from using the information to make a profit from buying and selling shares) derives from a European Directive.