THE EU AT 50 – Chris Davies MEP 26 March 2007
(Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West of England)
So the EU is 50. It's not a bad age and its future looks secure. Recent concerns about global warming and future energy supplies have reminded governments of their dependence on one another and reinforced the desire to move forward together.
As an environmentalist I never have a problem answering the question "what has the EU done for us?" "Look at otters returning to the rivers of Britain," I say. "Think of the improvements to water and air quality,
cleaner beaches, protected habitats, more recycling, better waste management, banning of dangerous chemicals, and now the raft of measures designed to slow climate change." Pollution pays no respect to national boundaries and this is action most people welcome. It's true that EU policies sometimes make things worse rather than better but in general they have forced the pace of environmental progress.
Do you have a mobile phone? In 1987 the EU introduced a common standard for digital mobile telephones. It created a huge market for manufacturers and gave a massive stimulus to innovation – a good example of Europe at its best. You don't hear many people grumbling about Brussels having undermined national sovereignty on this issue, or complaining about the European Commission introducing measures now to curb excess profits and drive down the cost of international phone calls.
THE WORLD'S BIGGEST MARKET
The EU brings together 500 million people in 27 countries to form the world's largest internal trading zone. But it's not simply a common market and never has been. The intention of the six founder nations in 1957 was to ensure that the bloody conflicts that had torn Europe apart could never happen again, and in the Treaty of Rome they committed themselves to seek "ever closer union". Britain held back, and instead founded the European Free Trade Association. It was a huge mistake. Within four years we were saying "sorry, but we want to join the club." By 1973, when we finally secured membership, the others had introduced measures like the Common Fisheries Policy that would have been very different had we been there from the beginning.
Within the European Union we have the right to travel, and live and work anywhere. Young Poles move to Britain. Elderly Brits move to Spain. Air travel has been liberalised, our driving licences are respected, and we have the right to free medical assistance if we get into difficulties. Basic common safety standards have been introduced and every European citizen has the right to a minimum four weeks' holiday. We can even travel with our pets, the EU having copied British practice and created a 'passport' scheme to replace quarantine requirements. It's true that languages differ but the common means of communication is English.
EU members have agreed to share sovereignty in certain fields. Negotiating international trade deals Europe speaks with a powerful single voice that ranks us alongside the USA. Collectively we are strong, individually we are weak. Can you imagine any European country trying to negotiate alone with the emerging superpower that is China? Even the Germans would end up eating with chopsticks!
HOW THINGS GET DONE
The Brussels decision-making process sounds complicated but isn't really that hard to understand. It can be explained in just five sentences. Every three months Europe's Prime Ministers get together and paint the big picture about what their countries should be doing together. The fine detail is then left to the European Commission, appointed to do the job of drafting specific proposals and enforcing the rules once they are agreed. Proposed laws and the budget have to be put to meetings of ministers from all 27 countries and to elected MEPs. Both these groups, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, have the power to amend or reject most draft laws, and if we disagree with each other we have to negotiate a compromise. Once passed, it is up to each country to put the rules into practice or risk being taken to the European Court of Justice.
Of course there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. Most countries have hundreds of civil servants based in Brussels who do the detailed work. New proposals are considered line by line but there are rarely any votes; the aim is not to crush the others but to take account of concerns and build a consensus.
And the result? Well, at its most extreme, when there is a dispute between European nations we no longer send millions of young men off to die on the battlefields. Instead we set up a sub-committee in Brussels. It may not be so dramatic but it is certainly more civilised.
More typical of the EU in practice were the controversial negotiations on proposals for new chemical regulations that came to a conclusion recently. Their object was to ensure that no chemical poses risks to health or the environment. As a member of the negotiating team in the European Parliament I was very aware that the chemicals industry is the North West's biggest manufacturing employer, and members of the Women's Institute reminded me that every one of us will come into daily contact with hundreds of the 30,000 chemicals in use.
Britain enthusiastically supported the basic ideas proposed by the European Commission but sought changes to reduce their complexity and costs. MEPs like myself sought stronger environmental controls and less animal testing. We all got something, and the 'REACH' regulations not only will now become the EU standard for chemicals but because our market is so huge are likely to become the world standard.
Can you imagine the position of the British chemicals industry had we not been members of the EU? We would have been excluded from the negotiating room, left powerless and utterly dependent on the decisions made by others. This is the position that Norway finds itself in every day. The country is not a member of the EU but to remain prosperous it stays within the European economic area. The price it pays is to implement hundreds of EU laws each year over which its civil servants and politicians have had absolutely no say. This is what the UK Independence Party wants for Britain. It would amount to castration. We would still function but not to our full potential.
SMALL AND LARGE
Too often I think we Brits see the situation only from our perspective as a large country. Remember, ten nations within the EU have a population smaller than that of the North West of England. EU rules may be tiresome but they ensure fairness and prevent the big boys, Germany, Britain and France, from turning into bullies. Far from subverting individual identity the EU structure gives smaller nations a bigger say in determining their destiny. Just think of Scotland; nationalists may want to break with England but they most definitely want Scotland to stay within the European Union.
WHAT ABOUT THE MYTHS?
"But there are too many crazy rules," say the critics. "Just think of straight bananas!" As it happens there are EU rules about bananas but they describe them rather than straighten them. Banana buyers and banana growers trading by the million want the rules because they provide a legal framework for their business. They really should be of no concern to anyone else. Strip away the anti-European nonsense and there are sound reasons for most EU laws.
EU finances generate the most criticism so let's tackle the myths. The total EU budget is large but not vast; it is about the same size as that for Britain's National Health Service, and more than 98% of public spending remains in the hands of national governments. Britain's net contribution is less than £5 billion, which amounts to just two weeks' spending on the NHS. Contrary to the myth the EU accounts are audited and signed off each year. What's missing from the auditors is a so-called 'Statement of Assurance', because 80% of EU money is spent by national governments. Britain's top accounting officer says that he couldn't issue one of these for the UK Government if he were asked. With many reforms now in place there is no more corruption in Brussels than there is in London.
LIBERAL VALUES. BRITISH VALUES
The opinion polls remind us that the EU is not much loved. Is this surprising? Stripped to its bear essentials the EU is sometimes little more than a negotiating mechanism that helps 27 independent countries reach agreement on matters of common interest. Why should anyone fall in love with a 'negotiating mechanism'?
But in truth it is about more than that. The EU is about freedom. Membership requires a commitment to shared principles, amongst them democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. It's true that we are sometimes better at saying the words than we are at putting them into practice but there's no doubt that the EU has been remarkably successful in promoting freedom across Europe. It's had a huge pulling power. Dictatorships have been transformed into democracies. Individual rights have been extended.
Maybe it's time the opinion polls asked questions about specifics instead of generalities. Maybe, instead of grumbling, we should rejoice in the contribution Britain has made to a 21st century Europe and to shaping the values the EU holds dear. They are, after all, the same liberal, British, values for which we fought the Second World War.