The EU Referendum: EU Law and the UK

The EU referendum is only 15 days away, and most polls are still too close to provide a definitive prediction of its outcome. The ‘Leave’ campaign might be beginning to accumulate a small lead. One of the key issues in this campaign is UK sovereignty, and the amount of power EU institutions wield over Britain. On the ‘Leave’ campaign’s website, it is claimed: “We have lost control of vital policies. This is damaging.”. It is a sentiment echoed by ‘Leave’ campaigner Nigel Farage, something that he came back to multiple times on Tuesday’s ITV debate. However, it is a highly vague statement, something which has come to characterise the campaigns from both sides. As such, as a key fear for those wishing to leave, and a point little addressed by ‘Remain’, the validity of this claim must be examined.

Independent website ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ can begin to test it. It confirms that EU law does take precedence over UK law: since 1964, the UK has been required to not enforce any law that is incompatible with EU rulings. Despite this, the Court of Justice does not have the power to remove UK law that does not comply with its own – that is still the job of UK courts. The EU will work with individual countries to resolve issues relating to interpretation. Relating this back to ‘Leave’s’ statement above – it technically would be possible to ‘lose control’ of vital policies: if the UK held fundamentally incompatible views regarding these hypothetical policies.

However, the UK does have some say in the formation of EU laws, making this incompatibility theoretically less likely. As explained by the ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’, laws are proposed by the Commission, then amended by the Council and Parliament via majority votes. Once both the Council and Parliament have amended it, the proposal becomes law and must be implemented. Crucially, the UK is represented in these organisations. In the Commission, each member state provides a Commissioner; there are 28 in total. Britain’s Commissioner is Lord Jonathan Hill, although it should be noted that the Commission works for the good of the EU as a whole; it does not consider individual interests per se. Meanwhile, the Council of the EU is comprised of government ministers of member states, and the European Parliament is made up of 751 directly elected MEPs. Britain has 73, about 9.7% of the total. As can be seen, Britain has a very reasonable degree of input in EU lawmaking, given the number of member states, and the basis for its input is built upon elected officials.

As the ‘Leave’ campaign does not specify which ‘vital policies’ Britain is losing control of to Brussels, let us examine a few possible examples:

Immigration is a topic that emerges again and again in the EU debate, and the legislation regarding this, directive 2004/38/EC, does indeed require that: “European Union citizens have the right to move freely and live in another EU country, subject to any conditions set out in the EU’s treaties.” The fact that there are ‘conditions’ is something often forgotten by the Eurosceptic. For example, for those concerned about a strain on the taxpayer, the directive states: “Students and other people not working for payment, such as those in retirement, must have sufficient resources for themselves and their family, so as not to be a burden on the host country’s social assistance system, and comprehensive sickness insurance cover.” Furthermore, EU immigrants: “…may be expelled if they behave in a way that seriously threatens one of society’s fundamental interests…”. As can be seen, EU membership does limit how far Britain can control its borders, but it also allows freedom of movement for its citizens. Furthermore, there are clearly safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the system or damage to individual countries, regardless of whether one feels they go far enough. ‘Free’ movement is not entirely free.

The benefits of access to the EU single market is another hotly debated topic. A report in 2007 noted the overarching benefits of the market: “Consumers benefit from a wider choice of products and services at lower prices and with higher levels of quality/safety…Businesses operate within a common set of rules and benefit from a market which has 500 million consumers.”. The report also set out a strategy to improve these benefits in a changing global economy. In essence, the single market works because of free movement of goods and service providers, and fails when barriers are set up which prevent this to some degree. For instance, restrictions on the quantity of imports or exports by individual states are prohibited (see page 15, from Article 34 onwards) as this would interfere with the market’s effectiveness. If the UK left the EU, therefore, it would be free to alter policy currently required by the Union, but this could provide a barrier to benefiting from the single market. An obvious example might be the restriction of ‘service providers’ entering the country. It would also mean that remaining member states would be free to place restrictions on their trade with the UK, no longer prohibited by Brussels to do so.

This article will not attempt to dictate how a person should vote. Above are some of the facts that surround the decision the UK must make, facts that are little discussed given the frequency with which the topics they describe are brought up in debate. The UK certainly has some power in the EU, and certainly has things to gain.Whether or not either of these is sufficient to the British public remains to be seen. Summaries of EU legislation can be accessed here for those who wish to make their own enquiries on the subject.

Remember to vote in the EU Referendum on June 23rd.




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