Looking beyond the myths: what has the EU ever done for us?

30th September 2005 at 01:00
It began life as a post-war peace initiative between six countries. With 25 countries now on board, the EU is a rather different animal. It manages European co-operation on issues as wide-ranging as the environment, transport and employment, and wields an increasing influence on the world stage. Sounds impressive. But is there any meat on the beast's bones? Yojana Sharma investigates what economic, social and political union has achieved for EU member states so far


The EU was conceived as a way to cement peace after the Second World War.

Outbreak of a third conflict between European countries is inconceivable now.

Democratic and human rights for a country's citizens has been a condition of entry for new member states. This has bolstered freedoms in countries formerly ruled by dictators, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, or those emerging from communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Political stability in Europe means better economic prospects for all.


Access to a prosperous "common" market was the main reason Britain joined in 1973. With some 450 million people, the enlarged EU is bigger than the United States and Japan combined. UK exports to the EU are three times what we sell to the US. While many mourn the end of the UK's preferential trade agreements with the Commonwealth (which accounted for 65 per cent of our trade in the 1960s), we now export more to France and Germany than to the whole of the developing world.

However, for decades, European consumers paid higher than necessary prices for clothes thanks to an EU cartel arrangement restricting cheap textile imports from developing countries.


Less than five years ago Britain had among the worst maternity provisions in the EU. Now, thanks to EU agreements, UK employees benefit from a minimum of four weeks' paid parental leave.

Flexible working hours for parents, equal rights for part-time workers and those on fixed-term contracts, and maternity leave are now standard.

Because Britain opted out of the Working Time directive which limits working hours to a maximum 48 a week, we still work the longest hours in Europe - with the fewest number of bank holidays.

The UK is the only member state where working time has increased over the last decade.


Before Britain joined the EU, a visa was required to travel to "the Continent". Now we work, study and live visa-free throughout Europe.

Since climate is not something the European Parliament can vote to standardise, thousands of Britons emigrate to sunnier climes in countries such as Spain. More Britons (including 234,000 pensioners) live in the EU than EU nationals live in Britain.

Some 10,000 British students study in fellow member countries each year and 100,000 work in another EU member state.


Rivers have been cleaned and beaches made fit for swimming since the introduction of the EU's blue flag for quality scheme.

Standards have been set for drinking-water quality. Since joining in 1973, the UK's sulphur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain, fell from 6.1 million tons to 1.2 million, thanks to EU norms.

Noise levels on cars and lorries have been reduced by 85-90 per cent since 1973. The EU negotiates with one voice on international environmental issues, such as the 1997 Kyoto agreement on climate change and global warming.


Post-Colonial Britain can still "punch above its weight" thanks to a common foreign policy which gives Europe greater bargaining weight in the world.

But the requirement for unanimity can work negatively - such as when Mrs Thatcher stymied sanctions against South Africa which other EU countries wanted. Arguably this prolonged the Apartheid regime for another 10 years and it earned her the nickname of Iron Lady from members such as France who resented her intransigence. Divisions among member countries were never more evident than during the debacle over whether to go to war in Iraq.


Britons have guaranteed rights when they shop throughout the European Union - as long as you keep your receipts.

Compulsory sell-by dates on food and strict labelling, including colourings, additives and ingredients, are all EU rules. Even home-made cakes sold at school fetes must include information on allergens such as nuts. Rules on toy safety apply throughout the EU and to goods imported from non-EU nations.


The burgundy pocket-sized EU passport is now standard. National driving licences are being replaced by the handy credit-card-sized EU licence.

Thanks to EU rules, package-tour operators must provide compensation if your holiday goes belly-up through no fault of your own. Airline operators must provide compensation if they cancel flights. The price of air travel has halved in the last 10 years, thanks to EU competition rules.


It's a mixed bag of goods. The choice of vegetables eaten with the traditional British Sunday roast has grown since 1973. Many Britons had never seen aubergines, broccoli or peppers before then. On the other hand, large-scale farming and standardisation has seen the demise of dozens of varieties of English apples.

Thanks to the UK's Commonwealth ties, we now pay high prices because the huge cost of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy adds an estimated pound;28 extra a week to a family's food bill and keeps poor countries poor because they cannot get a good return on their produce on the world market.


Many argue that a borderless Europe merely makes it easier for criminals to move around the continent undetected. Even 20 years ago a criminal could often escape justice by fleeing abroad because cooperation with police and judicial officials in Europe was cumbersome. The new European arrest warrant means fugitives can be swiftly sent back. The work of Europol and justice ministers has led to the arrest of drug traffickers and child pornographers. Football hooligans and neo-Nazi groups are monitored and data on suspected terrorists can also be swiftly exchanged.

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