What has the European Parliament ever done for the UK?

As David Cameron tries to find favour in the European Parliament for his proposals to reform the UK's relationship with the EU, we take a look at some of the good things MEPs have done for Britain

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The Independent Online

UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove recently suggested the European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, might rule out some of David Cameron’s EU renegotiation proposals, arguing they may be reversible after all.

However, whether or not Mr Cameron’s agreement will be legally binding, an issue which still remains contentious and divides EU law experts, will not be relevant if it fails to find the support of the European Parliament.

Europe’s democratically elected behemoth, consisting of 751 MEPs from across all 28 EU members will soon get to scrutinise the document and decide whether it meets their wide-ranging approval. 

For those unfamiliar with the workings of the EU Parliament, this may represent a stumbling block as the EU is not broadly seen as an institution which favours the UK, at least in the eyes of many British citizens.

But you might be surprised to find in many instances the MEPs in Brussels have fought hard to ensure the rights of citizens are upheld, even those in the UK.

Here are five examples which are directly influencing the daily lives of people of the UK.

1. A cap on the amount of hours an employer can make you work

The Working Time directive provides legal standards to ensure the health and safety of employees in Europe. Among the many rules are a working week of a maximum 48 hours, including overtime, a daily rest period of 11 hours in every 24, a break if a person works for six hours or more, and one day off in every seven. It also includes provisions for paid annual leave of at least four weeks every year.

There have been some issues with the law’s revisions, most notably because MEPs oppose the inclusion of an opt-out, which the UK offers its citizens allowing employees to choose not to abide by the rules, as it undermines the protection of workers well-being. There is also an issue around whether being on-call counts as working hours. Parliamentarians believe they do, however this creates difficulties in professions such as medicine which are hard to square with governments.

2. Helping the people of Britain to avoid smoking

In 2014 MEPs passed the Tobacco Products Directive strengthening existing rules on the manufacture, production and presentation of tobacco products. This includes things like reduced branding, restrictions on products containing flavoured tobacco, health warnings on cigarette packets and provisions for e-cigarettes to ensure they are safe. 

It is generally believed that minimising the marketing on cigarette packaging makes the products less appealing to children, and given two thirds of smokers start before they are 18 is seen as a good preventative method. Action on Smoking and Health suggests smoking kills around 100,000 people in the UK every year, and half of all regular smokers will die a smoking-related death.

3. Helping you to make the right choices with your food

Thanks to the European Parliament, UK consumers have access to more information than ever about their food and drink. This includes amount of fat, and how much of it is saturated, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and so on. It also includes portion sizes and guideline daily amount information so people can make informed choices about their diet. All facts must be clear and easy to understand. 

Labelling of alcohol products, on the other hand, remains an on-going debate between Parliament and the Commission. Providing nutritional information on alcohol products is still voluntary for the time being.

4. Two year guarantees and 14-day returns policy for all products

Consumers across the EU have access to a number of rights, from things which are potentially very useful, to things which used to be annoying. For example, shoppers in the UK receive a two-year guarantee on all products, and a 14-day period to change their minds and return a purchase, these things are useful.

Rules also ban pre-ticked boxes on websites, such as those for additional services – annoying – and also prices have to be absolutely transparent, ie. No hidden costs.

5. Keeping your air nice and fresh (and safe)

Believe it or not, although the situation is improving, some areas of the UK have appalling air quality. A report by the Royal College of Physicians released on 23 February says 40,000 deaths are caused by outdoor air pollution in the UK every year. Air pollution is linked to a number of illnesses and conditions, from Asthma to diabetes and dementia. The report estimates  the costs to British business and the health service add up to £20 billion every year. 

But don’t worry, MEPs have your back. Not only have they ensured stringent levels thus far, they continue to work to include caps on an increasing number of harmful substances in the air. These laws have enabled NGO’s to refer the UK to the European Court for failing to reach targets, and the British Government has since outlined plans to improve the situation in future. 

Of the 150-200 pieces of legislation which pass through the EU Parliament every year, very few are simply accepted.

Many are amended and improved before being passed in a vote by all MEPs, but it’s also important to note some of the laws Parliament have blocked to protect its citizens. 

For example, after years of wrangling Acta – The Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement – was rejected by the European Parliament. The proposals aimed to reduce the trade of counterfeit goods, including material online. However, many MEPs felt this would limit people’s freedom of expression on the internet.

Scottish MEP David Martin said at the time: “The intended benefits of this international agreement are far outweighed by the potential threats to civil liberties. 

“Given the vagueness of certain aspects of the text and the uncertainty over its interpretation, the European Parliament cannot guarantee adequate protection for citizens' rights in the future under Acta.”

So whatever happens to Mr Cameron’s proposals just bear in mind the EU’s parliamentarians might just have the interests of the UK’s citizens in its heart.