One of the more depressing aspects of the debate about the UK's membership of the EU is the fact that very people actually seem to know what the EU is. This might sound odd. There's no shortage of 'opinion-formers', red-faced MPs, frothing Ukip tweeters, grave businessmen or gushing Guardian editorialists with a view on the EU. But few of them ever give the impression they could answer the simple question of 'what is the EU?'
The sceptics claim we are 'governed' or 'ruled' by the anti-democratic EU, that we are vassals of Brussels and oppressed subjects of some sort of insidious eurocracy. They are partly right but also glaringly wrong in many ways. The situation is, unsurprisingly, more complicated than Brussels being some sort of European Death Star and the EU being hell-bent on destroying the Magna Carta.
Equally culpable are the pro-camp, who rarely do much more than list all the wonderful things EU membership has brought us, avoiding the issue of how these wonderful things appeared. Tough environmental standards and rules on unruly bankers are wheeled out, for example, on a regular basis, despite the fact we would probably have legislated on these issues regardless. And then there are the more fluffy ideas around which they coalesce, such as free movement of people (but not for everyone) and 'global influence' (despite the fact the EU has no common foreign policy).
Underlying these claims is a clear lack of understanding of how the EU works and, therefore, what the actually EU is.
In simple terms, i.e. according to Wikipedia, "the EU operates through a system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmental negotiated decisions by the member states." Even Wikipedia doesn't seem able to say what the EU is, except that it is the outcome of processes led by sovereign nation-states, not an entity that we can insult or worship.
The EU is best seen as a product of 27 different countries (the intergovernmental part in the above definition) coming together to pool sovereignty and work together (the negotiated decisions part) because they believe it better to standardise regulation and coordinate policy than go it alone.
The sceptics will cry that this is wrong, that the Commission is deadset on eliminating national borders, national identities and national democracies in pursuit of a dream of a United States of Europe.
The entire European legislative process, from the development of an idea for a European law to the implementation of that law by Manchester City Council, has been set up to avoid this. This may change due to the so-called 'remorseless logic of the ever closer union' for the eurozone. But right now, under the Lisbon Treaty, there are enough checks and balances built into the system to ensure that things happen at an almost imperceptibly slow place.
The sceptics will cry that this process is anti-democratic, amoral and opaque, that the UK is oppressed and crushed by the bureaucratic machine of Brussels. In some ways yes, but not in the simplistic manner they would have the British public believe.
In a nutshell, this is how the EU develops and implements law. The Commission, which is something like the British civil service, comes up with an idea for law in a policy area that it has been given permission to work on by the member states.
Having published the draft law, the European Parliament (directly elected representatives from across Europe) and the European Council, made up of member state governments, each independently play around with the law and change it as they see fit. Once both parties have agreed how they want to change it, they then reach an agreement between each other, and out pops a European law.
There are two types of European law, a directive and a regulation. A directive indicates that, once agreed by the parliament and the council, it is then sent to each member state to be implemented by national governments. The directives are interpreted by Westminster civil servants, in consultation with affected parties, and then made law. Regulations are implemented as they are, so are by their nature more strict and tougher to change.
Even Wikipedia's description of "supranational independent institutions" is a simplification. The Commission, bound by the Treaties and required by law to protect the rights of the member states, can do nothing without the agreement of the member states. The pan European regulators and quangos, which especially vex the Daily Mail, are often populated by representatives from national regulators, including, surprisingly, the UK.
We are not in the United States of America. There is no federal European government (at the moment) British civil servants are embedded in each and every stage of the legislative process. It is the UK government which implements and enforces most EU legislation, often far more rigorously than the rest of Europe.
What then is the problem?
The above European systems are based on compromise, alliance-building and reasoned discussion, where possible. The UK's political institutions are fundamentally different, they are adversarial. You need only glance at prime minister's question time in Westminster or read some of the bile spewed forth by Labour about the coalition to see this. The coalition government is uncomfortably in place, the idea of a cross party consensus completely foreign, in stark contrast to our continental neighbours. Little wonder we struggle to get our heads round the Brussels' legislative process.
The horrifying ignorance that politicians, journalists and media monkeys across the political spectrum display on a daily basis is also a factor. No one can be blamed for the depth to which the 'debate' about Europe in the UK has sunk. It is a complex, unusual political system so when you combine an embedded revulsion at the idea of teaching children about Europe, you end up with widespread incomprehension. Hardly surprising we don't vote for members of the European Parliament and think Ukip's approach to diplomacy, i.e. blow up every bridge they can find, is a good one.
The most concerning aspect of the ever worsening relationship the UK has with the rest of the member states, since it is they who make up the EU, is that it is self-fulfilling. Decisions that affect each and everyone of us are made on a daily basis in Brussels, by British people working with other Europeans. However those Brits who are participating in the compromise-finding process can only do so if the UK is not seen to be on an 'out' trajectory. When our political elites pander to Ukip and the propaganda sheets of the Daily Mail, we undermine our image in the rest of Europe.
The worse the outcome of a compromise, the more ammunition is given to the sceptic camp. Ukip, for all their bravado, are doing a shocking job of fighting for British interests in Brussels. But their inactivity makes the situation worse for the UK, which ultimately strengthens their case. I'm not sure this is an intended strategy, but it certainly is working. If the Tories lose out to them in the next Euro elections, the UK will go from being one of the most influential group of MEPs after Germany's to a complete waste of space.
Unfortunately a referendum seems almost inevitable now given how the British media has spun the debate and how the political class has lost control of the European agenda. This is incredibly worrying because if the debate continues as it is, i.e. full of hyperbole, misinformation and a basic ignorance about what the EU actually is, the outcome will be one based on emotion, not a rational assessment of what's best of our country.