Sunday, 12 June 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #6: it has made all our lives better

We're nearly there now, in the seemingly-endless and usually-unpalatable debate about whether Britain should stay in the European Union. We've tried, five times, to demonstrate what an astonishingly bad idea leaving actually is, and now we've got to our penultimate post on the matter. This week, we want to point out how the European Union fights now, and has always fought for, protecting citizens from unscrupulous employers, as well as the social fabric more generally; and how the EU upholds environmental standards.

We've been a bit instrumental and technical in previous posts, but this time we want to show that this decision may make a lot of difference to actual normal people's lives. Sure, we can shout as long as we like about the fact that leaving would leave us worse off in outline and in terms of governance. So, for instance, if we stay in the Single Market, our budget contributions might remain - per head - pretty much the same as they are now. We are also not likely to have vastly more control over EU immigration than we do now under this 'European Economic Area' option, though there would be a few more ways for the London government to effect changes. But on the other hand, if we leave the Single Market and go it alone, trying to cut our own bespoke deal, there is likely to be very little there for service industries  - on which Britain relies more than most. So Brexit would involve an unpalatable choice of new realities - something that Leave voters haven't been told, and can't be allowed to hear from that side of the debate, until 24 June.

But all that sounds a bit technical - as dry as dust, if you ask us. What's needed here is a really concrete sense of what the EU has every done for the people of this country. And the answer is - quite a lot, actually.

Start here: the European Union has done a lot for wage earners. In almost every field, British legislation has been at least beefed up or encouraged by EU standards (you could say the same about many other countries in the Union). Yes, the Equal Pay Act was passed here before we even entered the EEC, as it was then: but the Equal Pay Directive substantially broadened the definition (and applicability) of those rights for women workers. And again, many British workers had enjoyed paid holidays since the 1930s, by law. But those were then repealed in the 1970s, only to be insisted upon again (this time generally, rather than in a piecemeal form) in the 1998 Working Time Regulations.

Nor has the EU really made working people poorer, despite the poorly-aimed charges of aloof and detached disregard for low income Brits having to cope with a migrant influx squeezing wages at the bottom end. They might well do, a little: but the extent of that effect is probably extremely limited indeed. Even if you believed that a Brexit would substantially reduce immigration (it won't, or the UK Government would already have pushed its majority share, from outside the EU, down already), the EU almost certainly does much more more to push up low income Britons' living standards that the free movement of people does to suppress them.

Exhibit one: if Britain were not to be part of the EU's Energy Union, it seems as if the interconnectors that we've increasingly come to rely on for energy supply might be quite a lot more expensive in the future than they might otherwise have been. If you're a low income family struggling to make ends meet, that might mean quite a lot to you - witness the brief popularity, in 2013 and 2014, of long-forgotten Labour leader Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices. Case two: EU structural funding to Britain's poorest regions (more than paid for of course by Britain's contributions), for instance Northern Ireland and Cornwall, would have to be replaced at a time when the Leave camp have promised Britain's budget savings on many, many other desirable projects. Would they get some of the cash? Probably. All of it? Highly doubtful. Example three: obviously the lower growth and even more parlous budgetary situation involved in a Brexit would hit spending, suggested by one study as between a completely unnecessary and self-inflicted two or three per cent off the welfare budget - on top of some of the very painful changes that have been made in recent years. We could go on here, but you get the point.

Next: the environment, an area in which the EU has a proud and decent record that Remainers have been far too reticent about trumpeting. One of the main reasons why our beaches and estuaries are a lot cleaner than they used to be is that the EU insisted, in the 1980s, that the Thatcher government officially 'list' bathing beaches and actually start doing something about their appalling state. This is a good example of what 'Europe' is doing, week in and week out, to sort out our shared and common environmental problems (the present author has an exceptionally readable and accessible book about this coming out soon, as it happens). Take the issue of air quality, an area in which a (slight) majority of the professionals involved think that regulation would get weaker and laxer if we left the EU. The UK has just helped to kill European proposals that would have saved many thousands of lives - an ominous harbinger of how the UK government might behave if freed from any controls at all.

The effect of Britain's exit elsewhere in, or across, the EU - from whose pollution we cannot escape - might actually damage the search for a better environment in the remaining EU states as well. The UK's self-deportation from EU structures, if Britain really did cut all its ties and refused even to remain within the EEA, would potentially weaken EU protection on a case-by-case basis in this country: but by removing an often-vociferous voice urging climate change action and decarbonisation in the European Council and Parliament, it would strengthen the hand of environmental reality-deniers, laggards and polluters within the EU in its turn. Neither is a smart option: both make the people of the United Kingdom less secure, and probably quite a lot less happy.

Now in theory the British government can do all this. It can clean up our beaches, stand up for air quality, safeguard our rivers, fight for workers' rights, redistribute cash both across the income scale and into Britain's poorer regions. So it's not absolutely necessary to appeal to some supranational authority if you believe in making the world better for actual working people and their families.

But ask yourself this: even though the Leave campaign has entirely dishonestly posed as an anti-elite crusade against all those 'top people', do you really think that any new Michael Gove and Boris Johnson regime would actually act on any of this? Do you really trust them to defend proper standards of fairness and equity at work, social spending, infrastructure and training in some of Britain's poorest regions, or the environment? Of course you don't. They won't. Boris has long spoken of the need to shred employment protection. Priti Patel, another Cabinet-level Outer, has talked of reducing the amount of regulation by half; Iain Duncan Smith, prime author of the Government's catastrophic and embarrassing Universal Credit money-burning machine, has refused to rule out getting rid of the Working Time Directive. And so forth.

All their talk of the National Health Service, and all that cash they could funnel into public services, will end at 10pm on 23 June. You will never hear a word of it again. That will haunt them and their new regime for as long as it lasts, of course, but they won't care. They'll be in power, Mr Gove and Mr Johnson - a mini-me sidekick of a journalist who is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, and a pound-shop echo of a Benjamin Disraeli tribute act. They'll be laughing at you, not-so-secretly behind your back - while the poor get kicked around and your children get asthma.

The Brexiteers' leaders don't care about any of this stuff. You do. So go out and stop them.


  1. So we should stay in the EU so it can overrule the elected government? How democratic.

    It is a better argument that the EU will slam up the trade barriers unless we slavishly obey it anyway, but not one that makes the EU look good.

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