Leading article: A seasonal reminder of the benefits of Europe

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The Independent Online

The complaint of Eurosceptics is a familiar one: "What has the European Union ever done for us?" Well there have been several developments this week alone that have provided an eloquent answer to that question.

One is a ruling from the EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes which is set to force credit card companies to cut the fees they charge shops for authorising sales. If these savings are passed on by retailers and restaurants, it could result in a fall in prices of up to 1bn a year. Our own Office of Fair Trading has signalled that it expects to implement the Commission's ruling within months. These charges have long been a disgrace. They are borne by all consumers, regardless of whether they pay by credit card or not, in the form of higher prices. They also bear no resemblance to what it actually costs the credit card companies to deliver the service. But now, thanks to the European Commission, time has been called on the racket.

Another development is news of a draft initiative from the European Commission to open up the European health system so that citizens can access services in other member states if it is quicker than in their home country. This is no panacea for the ills of our own health service. But it is certainly good news for those patients presently at the mercy of a woefully inefficient and unresponsive NHS. And the competition should be good for the NHS itself in the long-term.

Both measures (if properly implemented) will be beneficial to Britons. The EU Commission has accomplished what our own government could not by standing up to the multinational credit card companies. They are also gearing up to challenge the complacency of our monolithic NHS and offering British patients greater freedom of choice in healthcare. So much for the stereotype of useless Brussels bureaucrats who do nothing but think up ways to make life more difficult for us.

These successes follow the Commission's triumph in breaking up the British Airways-Virgin monopoly on transatlantic flights in a deal sealed earlier this year. In May the Commission also implemented a regulation that prevents mobile phone companies imposing extortionate charges on people who use their handsets abroad. People making calls abroad should now be noticing a sharp drop in their phone bills. This is all part of an encouraging trend. Europe is increasingly becoming the institution with the power and moral authority to stand up to the profiteering of large corporations.

The EU is also working in the broader national interest. The Commission came up with new regulations on car emissions this week. The deal is far from perfect. But it already represents something that no national government working alone could achieve. And measures to increase fuel efficiency are vital if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.

Finally, this is also a momentous day for the European founding ideal of freedom of movement. The Schengen agreement will expand from today to include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta. Non-Europeans will be able to travel between these countries without passport checks and separate visas. This will give a substantial boost to tourism (which already accounts for 4 per cent of the EU economy) and business. And the citizens of the whole continent will benefit from more open borders.

In a host of ways, the European Union is delivering on its objective of increasing the prosperity and freedom of the continent, Britain included. The real question is: when will those in this country who are so intent on heaping scorn on Brussels acknowledge this?