The increasingly shrill tones in which the daily back-and-forth over Brexit, immigration and the role of the European Union is conducted is making it harder to tune in to the reasoned debate puttering along below the surface. That’s a shame, because some of the most important and convincing arguments for remaining in the union are getting lost in the maelstrom. Among these is the fact that, without the EU, we have no guarantee to some of the basic rights of citizenship to which we have become so well accustomed. If we leave the EU, all those hard-fought rights could be easily lost too.
The most-well publicised of these rights at risk relate to women and their role in society – the right to paid maternity and paternity leave, for example, and the right to equal pay for equal work. But there are many more.
Try scanning through the following list and see how many you’d be willing to dispense with at a whim of a new elected government: the right to 20 days paid leave a year; the right a maximum 48 hour working week; the right to time off for medical appointments; the right to equal treatment by an employer if you work part-time, on a fixed-term contract or through an agency; the right to be informed about changes to your employment; protection from discrimination on the grounds of physical disability, sexuality, age, religion and so on; the right to work in a safe environment that does not threaten your health or put your life at risk; the right to live and work abroad; respect for the human rights of disabled people.
Removing ourselves from Europe means we’ll no longer have to meet these European rules. It might free some businesses of what they consider to be unnecessary “red tape”, but with it could go the ramp access that helps your grandmother visit her local library and the right not to be discriminated against at work because you are gay.
The imposition of these rules from Europe is, in essence, anti-democratic. Even if it is against the will of an elected national government, we must meet European laws on equal rights. That poses a threat to national sovereignty. So the question is this: do we value our sovereignty and our right to self-determination, or the agreement of what it means to be a European citizen – a floor below which our rights as Europeans cannot sink, whatever government we vote for – more highly?
Some of you will say I am a fool, but I prize the latter over the former. That there are limits to excess is what makes Britain so politically stable.
There is a common belief, particularly among those keen to leave the EU, that British society has now modernised to a point where enshrining such rights in a European mandate is not only undesirable, because it undermines the sovereignty of an elected national government, but also entirely unnecessary. We have, it is claimed, progressed so far that no politician would stand on a ticket of, say, slashing workers’ rights, cutting maternity leave or reducing the amount of paid holiday that workers are entitled to – and that no elected government would take the risk of meddling once in power. That is a fallacy.
It’s not that I don’t trust the British people to respect these rights themselves and reflect that in their voting behaviour, it’s just that democratic engagement has its necessary limits. In order to court popularity, political parties campaign on two or three issues of the day.
David Cameron, for example, campaigned on reduction of the fiscal deficit, capping welfare and immigration in the 2015 general election and on similar matters five years earlier. And yet there has been, during his premiership, a debate over reducing the time limit on abortion and efforts to make it easier for bosses to sack their employees. Right now we have a government that has overseen the proliferation of a casualised workforce, with a sharp rise in the use of zero-hours contracts, while that same Prime Minister has talked up its efforts on boosting the minimum wage and making work pay. The picture is always more murky than it first seems. In that context, signing up to a basic set of European rights seems sensible and worthwhile.
There are, of course, always loopholes to exploit in the EU regulations. Almost every job I have held in journalism has required me to sign away my right to a maximum working week of 48 hours, and I did it willingly, in full knowledge that this was the expectation in my career of choice; if I wanted a greater work-life balance, there were other sectors into which I could jump.
But the fact that the EU exists to safeguard a basic set of progressive rights for all Europeans – man, woman, able, disabled, gay, straight or trans – is to me a celebration of its original purpose of creating a united, humanitarian Europe. That’s something worth fighting for, not dismantling.
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