A few things the EU has done, and a few more it could still do

There doesn’t seem to be much that’s positive in the referendum campaign.  Here are a few things that the EU has made possible for people in Britain.

  • The right to live, work or retire in Europe.  About 2.2 million Britons are doing this at present.  (The estimate is from the IPPR.  Lower figures from the House of Commons library rely on the UK Census – which does not count Britons living abroad – and unhelpfully exclude people who live in other European countries for part of the year.)  Scandalously, many of them have been denied a vote in this referendum.
  • Taking easy, safe holidays in Europe.  About 80% of all UK holidays abroad are taken in the EU.  I’m old enough to remember not being able to go on a planned holiday in Prague because of  visa restrictions.
  • Workers rights.  The EU’s record is patchy, but think about the Working Time Directive – which British governments have constantly griped about – or parental leave.
  • Gender equality.  Perhaps, again, people don’t remember the discriminatory rules for pensions or disability benefits that the EU has made us change, much to the fury of the UK government.  Housewives Non-Contributory Pension, anyone?
  • Consumer protection.  Much of this seems minor now, because we take the protections for granted – covering, for example, goods by post, customs, phone networks,  savings accounts – but there was a time when they weren’t there.
  • Environmental controls.  If, for example, you live somewhere near the coast – most of us do – you may have noticed the push to clean up the waters.  The UK can’t clean the seas or the air on its own.
  • Providing millions of jobs.  It doesn’t follow, because the UK now has large numbers of related jobs in finance,  cultural industries, education, science or that all of those jobs will be lost – but the reason those jobs are there has been our trade with Europe.
  • Infrastructure projects.  Unbridled free trade has a downside, which may mean the decline of local industries and regions.  The EU has a set of compensatory mechanisms to mitigate this – the social fund and the regional funds – and several of our regions have benefitted from them, at a time when London-based government was ready to let the market rip.
  • Security.  Again, perhaps people don’t remember the dictatorships, the wars or the Iron Curtain.  The EU was set up to stop this, and stop it it has.
  • Influence.  Britain has consistently pushed to extend EU influence in foreign policy and the effect has been to achieve things, e.g. on nuclear non-proliferation, which otherwise would not have happened.

The EU could do more:

  • controlling multinationals
  • limiting tax evasion
  • reducing the costs of currency exchange
  • creating a financial transactions tax
  • guaranteeing rights for its citizens
  • distributing its funds so as to reduce poverty
  • giving the European Parliament the power to legislate, allowing decisions of the ECJ to be set aside, and other powers to reduce the democratic deficit

However, it will only be able to do things like this if the member states let it.

2 comments

  1. caroline leclercq

    I could never be in favour of Europe, the reason being that I – with my young family and thousands of other Brits – were refused re-entry into the UK if they were in need of any benefits through the mechanism of the “Habitual Residence Test”. From 1994 to 1999 this Test rendered people “habitually resident nowhere”, as was our case, unable to plug into any system. The European Commission refused to do anything about the bottom line of this and the UK (Peter Lilley MP at the time) explained that he hadn’t wanted to extend the Test to returning Brits but that the EC had forced him to (i.e. non discrimination between nationalities). I still live in France, where I never elected to be.

  2. Paul Spicker

    The rules have changed since the time you’re writing about, but John Ditch and I did a review of the state of play in 1999 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-246X.00038/abstract). I’m not sure, from this, whether you were correctly informed about your rights at the time.

    There are immigration rules barring non-British citizens who might claim benefits, but those are different – the main bar is on claiming benefits after arrival. The ‘habitual residence’ rule was worded precisely to make a distinction between those the government thought should be coming to Britain, and those who shouldn’t. The test introduced in 1994 was fairly limited, and applied only to Income Support and Housing Benefit. While there was formally no minimum residence period, in practice returning British residents were restricted in their ability to claim those two benefits for three to six months. Some other benefits (e.g. Severe Disablement Allowance) had minimum residence requirements under different rules. Child Benefit didn’t.

    Since then, the habitual residence rule has been extended to cover a range of other benefits, including JSA, ESA, Pension Credit, Universal Credit and disability benefits. However, EEA workers, self-employed people and their families are fully exempt from the habitual residence test.

    I think it’s more generally true that there are continuing obstacles to free movement, and many countries, including France, slip in rules which are meant to get in the way. That isn’t an argument against the EU.

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