The people take charge: the EU and power

Rallying cries: But is the EU a vehicle for change or an obstacle to it?

In our third article looking at teenagers’ concerns and the EU, we assess where power lies. If you want to change the world for the better, should you work through the EU or outside it?

‘Who are you? Who voted for you? And what mechanism do the peoples of Europe have to remove you?’

UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s outburst at the new (and first full-time) president of the European Council in 2010 has now been watched on YouTube more than 300,000 times.

Farage says the EU is undemocratic. The EU’s council not its people chose the president he berated. Member states’ governments choose the EU’s 28 commissioners. Some of its most significant positions are filled by appointment.

This has led to criticism from across the political spectrum. In 2014 former journalist and civil servant Bernard Ingham said: ‘Far too much governance has been conceded to an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels.’

Last year supporters of Greece’s radical left-wing government were angered when the EU helped to impose a harsh austerity package on the country. They argued that the EU and similar institutions were protecting financial elites, against the wishes of the people they serve.

In the UK’s referendum campaign, Leave supporters are emphasising this. ‘This is the people versus the establishment,’ says Labour MP Kate Hoey in Brexit: the Movie. Vote Leave — whose slogan is ‘take control’ — says over half of the new laws introduced in the UK since 1993 are from the EU. It adds that the EU may become more undemocratic.

The EU’s defenders say its laws check global elites’ power. Leading trade unionist Frances O’Grady says working people have ‘a huge stake’ in the referendum because ‘the EU guarantees workers their rights to paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment for part-timers, and much more.’

Supporters also say the EU has helped to tackle global problems, such as tax avoidance and terrorism, which national governments could not deal with alone.

Environmental expert Dr Charlotte Burns says ‘EU membership has had a profound impact on UK environmental policy’ and EU policies ‘have driven up standards across Europe’. Legislation has helped to make Europe’s air and beaches cleaner, and the UK government is now facing heavy fines for failing to reduce damaging emissions.

By popular demand

Leave campaigners say the EU is an elitist institution which defends corporate interests above those of the people. It passes vast numbers of laws and makes shady deals, ignoring the will of the people. The next generation needs to take power back, so they can influence their own lives.

People must use institutions like the EU to achieve change, respond Remain supporters. Europeans’ lives are now affected by forces beyond the control of national governments. If they want to protect fairly-rewarded jobs, security and the environment, they must come together to exercise their power.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to make decisions for yourself or to make collective decisions in large groups?
  2. Will you have more power if Britain leaves the EU or stays in it?


  1. Think of five things you would like to do if you were leader of your country. Then in groups, discuss: how would giving power to a bloc of countries (like the EU) help or hinder you?
  2. Think of a hobby or activity you enjoy. How has it been affected by EU law? How could it be affected in future? Research the answers and feed back your findings to your class. Has the EU improved the things you enjoy?

Some People Say...

“Democracy is more important than any other principle in politics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in the UK. Does this referendum change how much power I have?
The UK result may have an impact on the EU’s rules and structures. If you live in the EU, this will affect decisions that are made on your behalf. There may also be calls in your country for a referendum on leaving the EU. If you live outside the EU, ask yourself: do you think power should be shared across borders, or are the people of one country better off making decisions for themselves?
I am not bothered about politics. Is the referendum irrelevant to me?
Even if you do not realise it, EU law affects many areas of your life — even including things like the pillows you sleep on. Whether you think the rules have improved your life or see them as unnecessary interference, they affect you more than you may realise.

Word Watch

European Council
Where heads of state meet to decide the EU’s general direction.
There is one commissioner per member state. The commission proposes legislation, enforces EU law and sets the EU’s priorities.
Federica Mogherini, the European Commission’s high representative, is an example.
Bernard Ingham
Press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote of ‘the horror with which unelected technocrats have greeted the resurgence of democracy in Greece’.
More undemocratic
Some fear a proposed trade agreement with the USA could allow corporations to sue governments offshore. And last month, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said he would refuse to deal with far-right politicians if they won elections. Juncker was chosen by a vote in the European Parliament.
Frances O’Grady
General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress.
Dr Charlotte Burns
Writing for Friends of the Earth.
Burns says EU directives have led to falls in UK emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

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