One of the things I've noticed when speaking to normal people, is that there are an awful lot of myths out there about the EU and what it does. I've had a London taxi driver tell me it's bad for UK jobs and a colleague tell me they "make all of our laws" and "Germany tells us what to do". The sheer amount of false knowledge the British people have been fed worries me. I am aware that the concept of "independence" and "taking back control" carries unavoidable positive connotations, and is particularly appealing to certain sections of society, who still feel the aftermaths of the great recession and feel like their social and economic opportunities have been severely limited.
However, the EU has done more to protect ordinary working people than most UK governments of the last thirty years. So I'm going to bust some of these common myths.
1. "The EU is not a democracy. It's just run by unelected bureaucrats who are not democratically accountable"
The EU is overwhelming democratically accountable, and when compared to our own political institutions actually has more democratically elected members than we do! The EU Parliament is made of 751 MEPs, 73 of which represent the UK who are elected once every five years. You then have the EU Commission, which has one commissioner for each member state, picked by the Prime Minister/President of each country. The only real difference is that it is the Commission that proposes laws to be debated on, not the parliament because there is no government with a set agenda or manifesto as there is here. But no legislation which the Commission proposes will become law without the backing of the EU Parliament.
It is always quite interesting to me that people talk about the UK Parliament as though it is a shining example of democracy. We have a House of Lords that is stuffed with 800 unelected members, most of whom have been chosen by subsequent governments or even worse, are residual hereditary peerage Lords who are there purely because of their bloodline. We also have a Head of State who again, is there because of the privilege of her heritage, and is in no way democratically accountable. We also severely limit the powers of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Parliaments, so that they cannot legislate on foreign policy, economic or monetary policy, immigration, employment legislation or constitutional matters to name a few. Many governments also enact laws that were not in their manifesto, such as this government's attempt to cut Working Tax Credits or their recent proposals to lift the cap on university tuition fees. This is not many people's idea of a democracy and is far in excess of the democratic deficit in the EU. But that doesn't mean I want to leave the UK.
2. "75% of our laws are made by The EU"
OK, this is just straight up false, fed to people from the UKIP propaganda machine. The EU passes a lot of laws, but a considerable amount of them have no effect or are simply not relevant to us. There are lots of regulations about tobacco farmers and olive growers for example, which would not apply to us. There are also lots of minor tiny regulations, which can be incredibly niche as well as many that, have either been replaced or repealed. It is estimated that the amount of EU law that affects us is anywhere between 15%-65%, but it isn't really fair to measure a tiny regulation with the same weight as a huge piece of legislation like The Trade Union Bill that could have a big effect on our lives. This would give a false picture of how much power The EU really has.
I can also tell you (as a former law student) that the EU has very strict areas that it is deemed to have competency in. In other words, the areas the EU can legislate in are clearly outlined. So, the EU can't just start proposing laws on our foreign policy, or education. But they can make laws about the internal trade market, or competition between businesses. There are also areas of "shared competence" where the EU works with the member state's national governments to create laws in certain areas like the environment, consumer protection or transport. The European Court of Justice also acts a check on balance on the EU when interpreting legislation, not allowing laws which are outside the EU's remit to have effect. So this concept that the EU tells us what to do all the time, about whatever it likes is just not true. It's own treaties and legal system does not allow it to do so.
3. " The EU is great for the giant corporations, but has no impact on small businesses. They just over-regulate them"
I always enjoy the irony of right wingers like Iain Duncan Smith who consistently slashed the livelihoods of many poor working people, pretending to stand up for "the little people" when they make statements like this. The EU does a lot to ensure that the single market remains "competitive" and part of this is stopping large companies monopolising their market. This helps smaller businesses, giving them a chance to thrive and grow without being stamped out by bigger businesses clumping together and fixing prices, pushing the smaller guys out of the market.
The reduction of economic trade barriers across the EU also makes imports and exports much cheaper, so that suppliers to small business can sell their goods and services to them at a much cheaper price AND businesses can then sell to us consumers at a cheaper price too. Free movement of people also gives small businesses more choice of employees, without the need to obtain work permits or visas (which all takes time and costs money). They have a wider source of talent to choose from, making for a more vibrant, dynamic economy. Much of the so-called "red tape" is about businesses maintaining quality standards, protecting the environment and being fair to their workers. It is also much more efficient to have the same regulations across the whole of the single market rather than 28 different ones, for example being able to register a trademark once, or filling one form in, or paying one single fee and it be valid across the whole single market. It actually saves small businesses money.
4. "The EU is bad for poor, working British people"
This is the main stick used to beat The EU with, and is a brand of politics based on fear and pitting one vulnerable group of people against another. It's complicated to explain to people how sub-prime mortgages and a world wide banking crisis has reduced their employment opportunities. But it's easy to say immigrants are stealing your jobs. Researchers at Oxford University found that over a thirty-five year period, no association could be found between an increase in EU immigration and a drop in wages or increase in British unemployment. Detailed research from LSE found that a big fall in wages after 2008 was in correlation to the financial crisis and a slow economic recovery, not EU migration. From 2000-2011 a UCL study found that EU migrants have brought a net benefit of 20 billion pounds to the tax payer, which suggests that a "squeeze on housing, school places and The NHS" could be largely circumvented if governments chose to allocate taxpayers money properly and fund these services to adequate levels. The poor working class have a right to be angry about the financial situation, but not because of EU migrants.
The EU has also been a pioneer in worker's rights, like areas of equal pay, sex discrimination, maternity and paternity rights, proper protection for part-time workers, paid holidays, limits on working hours per week, and health and safety. It is easy for people to say we would have legislated for these things anyway, but I don't want working people to take these rights for granted. There is no guarantee that working people would have been given these dignities in the workplace.
So there we have it. The EU is by no means perfect; all political intuitions require change and reform. But the fact is The EU has done far more good than bad, and is a democracy. The future of democracy and our sovereignty is that it is shared and that we work together in this increasingly globalised world. Don't fall for the brexit propaganda, in the long-term our future and success is in collaboration, not isolation.
This article first appeared on the political blog site Naked Politics
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