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Guide to the European Union

What recent issues have affected British politics? 

EU Enlargement 

The EU has gradually expanded and now has 28 member states. Enlargement has had the benefit of increasing the size of the Single Market and also bringing countries that have not been democratic into a democratic union.  Britain was one of the main advocates for the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Mrs Thatcher believed that the influence of Russia would be reduced if Eastern European countries joined the EU.  Enlargement also took up so much organisational effort that it slowed down the further internal integration to which Britain was opposed. It did also mean, though, that there was a greater impetus to make decisions based on majority voting as it would be unreasonable for one member state to exercise a veto and hold up the other 27.

Britain’s buoyant economy, especially with a high £ which made wages much better than in their home countries, brought considerable migration of people from Eastern Europe. By the end of 2014, 895,000 Eastern European were working in Britain.  This has led to controversy over the impact on Britain and immigration and from about 2002 was being named by people answering opinion polls as one of the most important issues affecting the country.  UKIP emerged after 2010 as an anti-immigration anti anti-EU party with the tabloid newspapers on the right promoting similar views. The overall economic impact is uncertain but it seems that there has been an effect on wage levels in some types of employment and on extra cost on services, not health as the new population is young, but on, for example, schools. After 2010 the established political parties had to decide how to react to the concerns of many voters. It was possible to delay immigration from Romania and Bulgaria for a short period but the free movement of people across the EU to work has been a fundamental principle from the beginning and other EU countries, especially the Eastern European members, will not agree to any change to this principle. Cameron is interested in introducing a four year residency test before people can claim tax credits and housing benefit but there are legal problems in implementing this.

The Euro and the Euro Crisis

After the further integration that the Maastricht Treaty implemented, France and Germany were keen to move towards a single currency. Mrs Thatcher was opposed to this and the conflict with her Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer over the issue was one of the reasons for her removal as Prime Minister.  John Major’s Conservative Government then decided to join the European Monetary System, which was designed to bring the main European currencies into line. Britain’s attempt to make sure that sterling followed the Deutschemark led, in 1992, to speculation against the £ and the Government was forced to devalue, ruining the Conservative Party’s economic credibility for over a decade.  These events convinced many Conservative MPs that Britain should not be involved in further European integration.

The election of a Labour Government, in 1997, might have led to Britain joining the Euro but Tony Blair was cautious and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, set strict tests that the British economy had to meet before would be agreed. As the Euroscepticism of the public and the tabloid press increased, Blair promised that there would be a referendum before Britain joined the Euro. The Conservatives opposed entry and ‘Save the £’ became one of their campaign themes in 2001.  Britain had opted out of some areas of integration in the Maastricht Treaty and it was unlikely that we would enter the Euro and so a two speed EU had developed with Britain in the outer group.

The UK's Referendum to 'Brexit' or 'Remain'

Increasing Euroscepticism among the electorate and the Conservative Party and the rise of UKIP as an anti-EU party, have put the two main parties on the defensive in relation to the EU.  Blair had already promised a referendum before Britain could join the Euro and the Coalition Government passed legislation to require a referendum to approve any further treaty changes, although Cameron decided not to put the Lisbon Treaty, which had already effectively been concluded by the time he became Prime Minister, to a referendum. 

Pressure from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and the effect of UKIP eating into the Conservative vote, with two Conservative MPs defecting to UKIP, led to Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership if the Conservative won the 2015 election. the Conservatives won and an EU referendum in the UK was announced for 23 June 2016. 

Cameron's 'Yes' campaign is based on a negotiated settlement with the European Union, which has been unacceptable to many members of the Conservative Party. Cameron suspended collective responsibility for members of his cabinet to be able to campaign personally to leave the EU even though the government's official position is to remain. High profile members such as Boris Johnson, MP and London Mayor, Michael Gove, Justice Secretary and Iain Duncan Smith, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions joined the leave campaign.  

The issue is very divisive within the Conservative Party as anti-European Conservatives want to restrict the free movement of people within the EU, but this would be a fundamental change to EU treaties, and also a return of parliamentary sovereignty to Westminster.  They want the EU to become just a free trade area with Britain being able to decide its financial contribution, what regulation it wants and its own trade agreements with a separate place again in international trade organisations. The problem here is that the original Common Market wasn’t just a free trade area, even in 1957. When the original six countries signed the Treaty of Rome they basically agreed to pool sovereignty in order to carry out economic integration and this is fundamental to the whole EU project.  

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

Since 1945 barriers to trade across the world have been reduced through the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs and the World Trade Organisation.  This international process of freer trade has stalled and now agreements are mostly been individual countries and groups of countries.  A trade deal (TTIP) is currently being negotiated between the EU and the United States. The concern of many people on the left in politics is that large firms have had too much influence and that TTIP will include:-

-        A relaxation of standards covering environmental, food safety and working conditions many of which are less rigorous in the US.

-        Investor State Dispute Resolution (ISDR) which means that, if Governments make policy changes which affect firms, they can be sued after a hearing in a secret court.  There was concern that this would prevent a future Labour Government from reversing privatisation in the NHS.

The British Government has supported the agreement but aspects of it have been opposed by the British Labour MEPs and the campaigning group 38 Degrees and the Green Party oppose TTIP in its entirety. The Chief EU negotiator has said that nothing in the agreement will affect Government policy on the NHS and EU Committees have made some changes such as preventing the ISDS Court from meeting in secret but there is still concern.  It may be some time before the negotiations are completed and the European Parliament and the US Senate will have to approve the final version but the discussion surrounding TTIP may surface during the Referendum campaign.

The Refugee Crisis 

The collapse of Government in Libya, the civil war in Syria and conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan has led, during 2014 and 2015, to a large number of people seeking asylum in Europe.  They cross the Mediterranean in their thousands in rickety boats exploited by people smugglers who they have to pay. 

Under the EU Schengen Agreement, which Britain had opted out of, there is a common EU boundary and asylum seekers should be processed by the country where they enter the EU. The problem is that this creates a strain for the countries in the front line – Italy, Greece and Hungary – while the migrants want to end up in the richer countries of NW Europe where there are more job opportunities.  The EU Triton project which aims to intercept ships is a compromise between north and south EU countries and has shown the EU to be inadequate in sorting out the problem.  The UK has provided significant foreign aid but is not that much directly involved. The UK has taken a number of Syrian refugees, mostly directly from refugee camps in Syria, but the media attention to the refugee crisis in Britain has kept the immigration issue to the forefront and shown the EU to be poor at coordinating foreign policy.

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