EU referendum: Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

The big EU questions: With less than 20 days to go before the potentially epoch-making vote on British membership of the EU, the debate so far has been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. Until the referendum, we will be running a series of question and answer features which will explain the most important issues involved in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision

John Lichfield
Thursday 16 June 2016 10:49 BST
Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission in Brussels
Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission in Brussels

The Leave camp says the British way of life and sovereignty are threatened by “undemocratic” EU laws. The Remain camp says EU laws are limited and necessary. Who is right?

You drive for thousands of miles across continental Europe on the right hand side of the road. You pay for fuel or meals with a single currency.

Then you reach Britain. You have to drive on the left. The pound remains supreme.

The European Union does influence the way we live but the Leave camp unduly exaggerates the existential European threat to Britishness. After four decades of our membership, the Channel remains one of the world’s great cultural frontiers. Equally, France remains stubbornly French; Italy obsessively Italian.

Read more of the big EU referendum questions here

But why do we need European laws at all?

Nearly 60 years ago, the founding fathers of the EU (née Common Market) decided that mere co-operation between European countries was insufficient. To create a single European trading area, to ensure European prosperity, to build a sense of common European destiny, to prevent further European civil war, there must be European institutions and European laws.

Britain hated the idea. We wanted a loose free trade area and a form of unstructured, government-to-government co-operation. We lost the argument. Six other nations went ahead in 1958. They were so successful that we eventually felt we had to join in.

The question is therefore a circular one. The European Union has European law because European law is what makes the European Union the European Union.

What aspects of our law does the EU control?

The EU makes laws that regulate industrial, agricultural and commercial life in the 28 member states. All rules on industrial safety and standards are supposed to be the same across the EU. A British widget and a Danish widget must meet the same standards. All hidden national barriers to trade or open competition are supposed to be illegal. This is what defines the European Single Market, as opposed to a looser free-trade area.

The EU also has laws on minimum employment conditions, such as working time – from which the UK is partly exempt. Europe has common environmental laws, on the grounds that environmental problems do not end or change at national frontiers.

The EU also has some control over tax policy, especially VAT, but variations are allowed between member states within limits. For countries in the eurozone (not including the UK), the EU has authority over monetary policy and government spending.

In other areas – crime, illegal drugs, education, health, road traffic – the EU scarcely has any role at all.

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But we are told that 70 per cent of UK legislation comes from the EU.

Such figures are misleading or even meaningless. The vast bulk of British laws as they affect the ordinary Briton – thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not drive on the right – are built on ancient English and Welsh or Scottish statutes and traditions.

The House of Commons library estimated in 2010 that the percentage of new laws influenced by the EU is between “15 per cent and 50 per cent”, depending on how you do the sums.

Even then, the raw counting of new acts of parliaments is silly. One might be an EU-inspired law regulating the size of olive oil containers. Another might be a wholly British law re-shaping the whole of the National Health Service. Which has the greater influence on the British way of life?

What about the democratic argument? Who makes EU law in the first place?

The unelected European Commission proposes; the elected European Parliament can influence the outcome; the unelected European Court of Justice sometimes makes judgments which, in effect, extend or strengthen European law.

But the real spade-work on EU legislation is carried out by unelected national civil servants working for the elected national governments, who have the final say. It is a strange kind of democracy but it is not as faceless and undemocratic as the Leave camp claims.

We hear all the time about the deadweight of EU regulation? Would we not be better off freed from the red – or blue and yellow – tape of Brussels?

Obsessive EU regulation and harmonisation can be a problem. Britain is far from being the only member state to complain about it. Brussels is in the middle of a campaign (not the first) to calm its officials’ one-size-fits-all instincts. As part of his “re-negotiation”, David Cameron won a fresh promise that Brussels would put competitiveness and flexibility ahead of over-regulation.

The problem is that one man’s de-regulation is another woman’s hidden trade barrier. Some level of common rules on the standards for making bird cages is essential if you want a single European market in bird cages.

Open Europe, the moderate Eurosceptic think-tank, estimates that the 100 most deadening EU regulations cost Britain £33.3bn a year. The British government says the same regulations provide benefits of £58.6bn a year.

Osborne concerned over Brexit

Regulation would not vanish with Brexit. Would we necessarily be better off with UK rules for the UK?

Much of this “red tape” covers areas such as climate change, employment rights and health and safety. If we left, EU legislation would have to be replaced with UK legislation, or just left in place.

There is a case that Britain might make better rules for Britain alone. British politicians and civil servants would, presumably, be easier to influence than 28 member states. On the other hand, businesses sometimes complain that the British government gold-plates EU regulatory law and makes it more burdensome than it needs to be.

And what would be the disadvantage of breaking the EU chains and bounding free?

It depends what you mean by free. If we left the EU and the Single Market our regulation might not match European regulation. Trade would suffer.

If we left the EU and remained (like Norway) in the Single Market, we would have to obey EU regulations but we would lose influence over regulation-making.

It is a familiar conundrum – the same Britain has faced since 1958. We might not like what the others are doing. We cannot easily afford to go it alone. Even Open Europe concludes that Britain is better off staying within the EU as an apostle of reform.

How central is the EU law debate to the vote on 23 June?

It is crucial. For a nation’s sovereignty and law-making power to be “shared” with other nations is an unusual state of affairs – never tried anywhere else. The “sovereignty” and democratic arguments against the EU cannot not be dismissed lightly.

Nor should the economic advantages of having a true European Single Market. Nor should the EU’s role in diluting, or caging, the worst aspects of European nationalist jealousies and hatreds.

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