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The Mirage of EU Rights

13/08/2015 10:25 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

Barely a debate on the European Union goes by without the 'in' side of the debate pointing to rights which they say were introduced by the European Union: equal pay, anti-discrimination, a 48-hour working week, maternity leave and holiday pay. The pat Eurosceptic answer is to point out that we could easily have introduced any of these things for ourselves outside the European Union. It doesn't count as a benefit of EU membership if we could have done the same for ourselves.

Until recently I hadn't really thought much wider than the above, but, in a sudden realisation sitting on an overcrowded carriage in a train home from London, it occurred to me that we can do much better than this. The pro-EU argument here isn't just weak, it's a house of cards which falls down the moment it's actually subjected to proper scrutiny.

I'll start with equal pay for men and women. The Labour Party had held a policy of equal pay since 1959, but in 1970 the Labour government finally got around to passing the Equal Pay Act, which guaranteed men and women equal pay for the same jobs. Britain didn't even join the European Union (then EEC) until 1973, and it was the Conservatives - not Labour - who took us in. The double entendre 'took us in' is entirely intentional. Directive 76/207/EEC was passed three years later (the clue is in the '76') - fully six years after the Equal Pay Act had been signed into law in the United Kingdom. It's a common theme that apologists for the European Union claim credit for things which were not done by the European Union.

What of race discrimination? The Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 made discrimination illegal. Whilst the 1976 Act technically took place after we had joined the EEC, in context it is quite clear that this legislation was passed as part of an ongoing move towards equality in the United Kingdom. The relevant European Union directive, 2000/43/EC, would be passed only decades later.

The rest of these claims concern employment rights in one form or another. The best claim for the European Union having influenced any of these issues is holiday pay. In the UK legislation in this regard dates back all the way to the 19th century and the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. That 19th-century British Act arguably provides more guarantees of holidays in law than the 21st century system in the USA. After the Holidays With Pay Act 1938, the direction of travel with paid holidays was already clear. Yet we still, within the European Union, have fewer paid holidays than countries like Afghanistan. Even where the pro-EU case is at its strongest, it's not actually that strong at all.

In one sense though, that's beside the point. When the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, the United Kingdom vetoed the Social Chapter which reinforced the British refusal to sign up in 1989. Being members of the European Union did not force us to introduce any of these measures. It was a political decision taken by Tony Blair in 1997 to sign the UK up, which led to them becoming part of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997. In short the European Union didn't give those rights, the British government did by making a decision to sign up to the Social Chapter. We could have been members of the European Union without any of this legislation.

The 48-hour working week was supported by Labour. They introduced it in 1998 after the Conservatives had refused to do so when in government. It was brought in by Labour, for political reasons. The Maternity Leave argument is even easier to demolish: UK law actually provides more rights than EU law in this respect.

Just like the pro-EU lobby's claims on mobile phone roaming charges, their claims on discrimination and employment rights are wildly exaggerated. The house of cards hasn't just fallen down, it's in flames.