As the UK voted to leave the EU in a referendum held on 23 June 2016, we are mothballing for now. While the website will remain online for reference purposes, it will not be updated unless the 'Brexit' process falters.


The terminology associated with the European Union (EU) is extensive and often highly confusing. This page provides basic explanations of the main jargon associated with the EU and the way it operates. Some important issues and observations are also mentioned. Official definitions can be found in the EU glossary and Eurojargon guide, but these skirt areas of contention and are prone to EU spin and sophistry. A lexicon of significant word definitions is also provided at the end of the page.

European Union

The European Union (EU) is an economic and political union of 28 countries with a combined population of almost 510 million inhabitants. Founded in 1957 as the European Economic Community (EEC) with the aim of creating "an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe", the EU is based on a series of legal treaties between its member states. Although initially concerned with improving economic cooperation, creating a single or 'common market', the EU has massively expanded its role and power in recent decades, effectively becoming a 'superstate' in its own right. Successive treaties have transferred jurisdiction over most areas of governance from sovereign states to the EU. About half to three-quarters of the laws in member states are now dictated by the EU, and there is a multitude of directives and regulations - 170,000 pages of the Acquis Communautaire - which restrict a national government in deciding what is in their own country's best interests. Most areas of UK policy and legislation are substantially, if not wholly, controlled by the EU (its so-called 'competences'); health, sport, tourism and education are perhaps the most notable exceptions for now, but even these are under increasing EU scrutiny. In addition to complying with EU law, any new country joining the EU is legally obliged to participate in both the single currency 'eurozone' created in 1999 and the 'Schengen area' of open borders.


All EU member states are part of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), requiring them to coordinate their economic policies for the benefit of the EU as a whole. However, not all EU member states are in the eurozone (officially called the 'euro area') of 17 states where the euro (€) is the common currency and sole legal tender. A further 9 states must work towards satisfying the eurozone entry criteria, while the UK and Denmark have opt-outs from joining for reasons of economic sovereignty. Monetary policy of the zone is the responsibility of the European Central Bank (ECB) which is governed by a president and a board of the heads of national central banks. Recent financial crises, threatening the stability and very existence of the euro, have been caused by trying to reconcile very disparate national economies, roughly grouped to the north and south of the eurozone. Germany has by far the strongest and wealthiest economy in the EU, and its power to prop up the euro and act as guarantor has resulted in the EU imposing severe fiscal strictures on debtor countries (for example, Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Italy), undermining their democractic self-determination, raising unemployment and causing civil disorder. The Fiscal Compact is an attempt at saving the euro by curtailing the debt of member states.

European Stability Mechanism

(ESM) The "permanent crisis resolution mechanism for the countries of the euro area". In other words, the slush fund for bailing out EU countries brought to the brink of bankruptcy by their membership of the eurozone. Inaugurated in 2012 with a maximum lending capacity of €500 billion and 140 staff. Criticized for operating behind closed doors with a lack of public scrutiny. Although not an ESM member, the UK does, however, contribute to existing bailouts through the IMF and also made a bilateral contribution in the case of Ireland.

European Commission

The EU executive and its most powerful body, comprising commissioners (currently about 30% are ex-communists) appointed by national governments, one per member state. One of the commissioners is nominated by the European Council to be the President. Only the Commission can propose EU laws, and it is responsible for enforcing them and guarding the Treaties. Also executes the budget, manages programmes and represents the EU externally. The Commission has far reaching powers but is not directly accountable to the electorates in member states, leading to accusations of it widening the EU's 'democratic deficit'. Also, 98% of EU regulations are decided by the hundreds of committees which service the Commission ('comitology').

European Parliament

The European Parliament (EP) was established 22 years after the EU, to inject a degree of democracy into its decision-making. Still the only directly elected body in the EU, it lacks the powers of a normal national parliament. Unable to propose new legislation, it can only accept, reject or try to amend laws proposed by the European Commission. Excluded from some areas of the Commission's work and with limited power to examine the EU's budget. Though the Parliament can sack the whole Commission by a vote of censure. Moves from Brussels to Strasbourg once every month at an estimated cost of €200m per year. Elected Members (MEPs) cost about three times more than MPs in the UK's Westminster parliament.

European Council

Comprises the heads of state or government of the EU member states, along with the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council (a non-head of state who is appointed and not democratically elected). The Council's purpose is twofold: setting the EU's general political direction and priorities, and dealing with complex or sensitive issues that need to be resolved at high level. The Council sets its own rules, with leaders meeting when they want and with much decision-making in private. Only unofficial notes are taken of meetings, and these are never released.

Council of the European Union

Also known as the EU Council or the Council of Ministers, this body comprises the relevant government ministers from member states. The Council passes EU laws and generally coordinates policies. For example, it approves the annual EU budget (jointly with the European Parliament); sets political guidelines; develops the EU's foreign and defence policies; signs agreements between the EU and other countries; and coordinates cooperation between the courts and police forces of member states. The Council is increasingly using the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) procedure, as opposed to unanimity, in its decision making.

European Court of Justice

(ECJ) The enforcer of EU law, accorded supremacy over all the member states' national courts. Member states must accept judgements made and fines (unlimited) imposed by the Court, without any right of appeal. All of the Court's judgements must be delivered within the context of the commitment to "an ever closer union" of European states. Comprises one judge from each member state, nominated by their national government, supported by 8 Advocates-General. Not to be confused with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which is not an EU entity, though the EU formally recognizes judgements of the ECtHR.

European Court of Auditors

An independent institution, made up of one member from each EU state, which audits the EU's accounts to ensure the regularity and legality of EU spending. The Court also gives its opinion on proposals for EU financial legislation and for action to fight fraud, though the Court itself has no legal powers; it informs the European Anti-Fraud Office if it discovers that EU funds are being misused. In the EU's accounts, the Court has never declared the EU budget "free from material error". This means the level of irregularity for payments has always been above the alarm threshold of 2%. For 2014, 4.4% of the €144.5 billion expenditure, almost €6½ billion was subject to fraud, neglect or irregularities.

European Anti-fraud Office

Also known as OLAF and responsible for investigating fraud and corruption in the EU. It has no judicial or disciplinary powers and it cannot oblige national prosecutors to act. Despite claiming a 'zero tolerance' approach to fraud, only a very small percentage (about 2%) of reported cases are investigated, and investigations are slow (25 months on average). Very few EU officials are investigated or convicted - EU law gives officials lifelong immunity from prosecution for acts committed in the course of their duties. Most cases concern fraud with EU funds perpetrated in member states.

Charter of Fundamental Rights

More extensive and up-to-date than the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter (CFR) sets out the full range of civil, social, political and economic rights of EU citizens and others living in the EU. After the Treaty of Lisbon, the Charter became directly enforceable by the EU and national courts. However, the Charter (and its guarantor, the European Court of Justice) often rules against the policies and decisions of elected national governments and can invert morality, be hugely expensive and even dangerous when the rights of individual criminals, terrorists or vexacious complainers trump the best interests and safety of the public.

Common Agricultural Policy

(CAP) Aims to protect agriculture in the EU by controlling prices and levels of production and by subsidising the rural lifestyle. Probably the most controversial EU policy because of its huge cost - over a third of the EU budget - and its protectionism which defends EU producers from cheaper products originating outside the EU. Works by imposing import tariffs, paying subsidies to farmers, and market interventions. Wealthy French landowners and agri-businesses benefit most while EU consumers pay inflated food prices and developing countries are impoverished by being unable to trade fairly.

Common Fisheries Policy

(CFP) Aims to conserve fish stocks and designed to make EU fishing grounds a common resource by giving access to all member countries. The EU manages access to fishing waters and determines how many fish a national fleet can catch (Total Allowable Catches and Species Quotas; catches which do not conform are dumped). The policy is widely criticised as being ineffective, wasteful and actually damaging to the environment and the fishing industry. Despite various reforms, fish stocks continue to fall and employment in fishing has declined dramatically, particularly in the UK. Spain has the EU's biggest fishing fleet, gets the largest quotas and does most of its fishing in British and Irish waters.

Schengen area

A group of countries where EU (and some other) citizens are allowed to move across national borders without the need for visas or passport checks. While superficially convenient and liberalising, open internal borders in the Schengen area have become highly controversial, increasing the potential for illegal immigration, trafficking, criminality, terrorism and the spread of infectious diseases. Romania and Bulgaria meet the requirements for entry into the Schengen area, but are denied entry amid concerns regarding the security of Bulgaria's border and high levels of corruption and organised crime in the two countries. The UK and Ireland have resisted joining the Schengen area because of such concerns.


The EU is based on a series of legal treaties between the member states. The first treaty (establishing the EEC) was signed in Rome in 1957. There were five subsequent treaties: the Single European Act (1986), the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Treaty of Nice (2001) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). In 2004, a draft EU Constitution, designed to replace all the existing treaties as the sole legal document governing the EU, was rejected by both French and Dutch electorates in referendums. The Constitution was reincarnated (96% unchanged) as the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, rejected by an Irish referendum in 2008 but finally ratified by all member states in 2009, following a second referendum in Ireland. The treaty's effects are drastic.

Acquis Communautaire

Also known as the Community acquis, this is the body of common rights and obligations which a state must accept to be a member of the EU. Member states must transpose the acquis into their national legislation and implement it from the moment of their accession. In the EU's own words, "derogations from the acquis are granted only in exceptional circumstances and are limited in scope". So, ultimately every EU state must comply with all the accumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions which constitute the acquis. It is still growing, even though it is already 714,000 pages long and contains over 310 million words.

Fiscal Compact

The Fiscal Compact (also known as the Fiscal Stability Treaty) is an intergovernmental agreement, prevented from becoming an EU treaty by the refusal of the UK and the Czech Republic to sign it. Revamped from the failed Stability and Growth Pact, it was born from the urgent need to try and resolve the eurozone crisis and restore calm to the financial markets. Specifically, it aims to prevent member states getting into debt by enforcing good fiscal discipline. It involves setting limits on debt, ensuring state budgets are balanced or in surplus, and implementing automatic correction mechanisms.

Common Security and Defence Policy

The EU's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) covers common defence and military aspects, as well as civilian crisis management. The CSDP is run by the unelected High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, implementing strategies and decisions taken by the European Council. The European Union Military Staff (EUMS) supervises military operations within the realm of the CSDP. The French are particularly keen to develop the CSDP and the EU's military power at the expense of the longstanding peacekeeper North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

European External Action Service

Launched in 2010, the European External Action Service (EEAS) functions as a foreign ministry and diplomatic service, implementing the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy and handling other areas of the EU's external representation. Led by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, it has already developed a network of 141 EU embassies ('delegations') and offices with ambassadors around the world. With an annual budget of almost €500 million, high spending is intended to project the EU as a global player, for example, by gaining rights at the United Nations. The EEAS has been attacked as being "top-heavy" with highly paid officials and blighted by incompetent staff and high absenteeism.


The EU has a plethora of presidents (present incumbents in parentheses): President of the European Council (Donald Tusk); Presidency of the Council of the European Union (rotates among member states); President of the European Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker); President of the European Parliament (Martin Schulz); President of the European Central Bank (Mario Draghi); President of the Euro Group; President of the Court of Auditors; President of the European Court of Justice; President of the European Economic and Social Committee; President of the Committee of the Regions; and so on.


autonomy = Self-government or the right of self-government; self-determination.

colony = A region politically controlled by a distant country; a dependency.

democracy = Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.

empire = A political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority.

hegemony = The predominant influence, as of a state, region, or group, over another or others.

imperialism = The policy of extending a nation's authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.

mandate = A command or an authorization given by a political electorate to its representative.

nation = A relatively large group of people organized under a single, usually independent government; a country.

referendum = The submission of a proposed public measure or actual statute to a direct popular vote.

scepticism = Any questioning attitude, or some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted. Usually meaning those who follow the evidence, versus those who are sceptical of the evidence. Most controversial when it questions beliefs that are taken for granted by most of the population.

self-determination = Freedom of the people of a given area to determine their own political status; independence.

sovereignty = The power of a state to do everything necessary to govern itself, such as making, executing, and applying laws; imposing and collecting taxes; making war and peace; and forming treaties or engaging in commerce with foreign nations.