Europe, what have you done for me lately?

The EU's triumph on mobile charges shows how the union benefits consumers.

The debate about whether or not Britain should have a referendum on its membership of the European Union continues to rumble on with politicians from the left and right intervening. But not a single politician has mentioned a new piece of European legislation which is set to reduce mobile costs for consumers in Britain and further afield.

In the last few days, most mobile phone customers will have received a text from their operator informing them that roaming charges, the cost of using data services abroad on smart phones, are falling. None will have been told that the change is due to concerted action by the European Commission rather than a benevolent decision by their mobile company.

The new rules mean that no customer can be charged more than:

• 29 euro cents (24p) a minute to make a call.

• 8 cents (7p) a minute to receive a call.

• 9 cents (8p) to send a text message.

• 70 cents a megabyte (58p) to download data or browse the internet, charged by the kilobyte used.

My operator, Orange, have done the absolute minimum and brought their charges down from the extortionate rate of £2.55 to 58p per megabyte. They still charge £8 per megabyte to roam in most countries outside the EU. Despite being forced to take this action, their website claims that “We are constantly updating our roaming services in Europe to provide the best possible business service abroad.” A likely story.

Thankfully the European Commission aims to reduce the gap between domestic and foreign call rates to virtually nothing by 2015. Indeed, Labour MEP for South East England, Peter Skinner, said in May:

“If roaming prices have not come all the way down to domestic levels by 2016, then the European Commission will be obliged to propose additional legislation to ensure that roaming charges are identical to domestic prices.”

Over the last two days several politicians have added their thoughts on Europe without drawing attention to Brussels’ triumph on mobile charges. David Cameron has confused everyone with his ‘hokey-cokey’ on an EU referendum. Despite calling for “less Europe not more Europe” in the bearpit of yesterday’s Commons debate he used his Sunday Telegraph article to say “The single market is at the heart of the case for staying in the EU … Leaving would not be in our country’s best interests”. So why not follow through with an up-to-the-minute example such as the data roaming cap?

In the same paper, Liam Fox called for a “new relationship” with the EU (rather than exit). But rather than talking up the virtues of EU membership here and now he used the past tense to claim that:

“The single market was one of the most important aims of the European Union project, yet in choosing a model based on harmonisation rather than mutual recognition it became inevitable that a body of law and regulation would be created that would potentially invite bureaucratic cost, diminished global competitiveness and even give encouragement to those who would fan the embers of national protectionism.”

On Labour’s side, Douglas Alexander wrote in yesterday’s Guardian that an EU referendum is no substitute for a European strategy. In defending the EU, he commented:

“We must be clear, the single market is not just about “free trade” as the Eurosceptics misleadingly imply. It's about far more than that: removing barriers behind the borders – and that requires common rules with a commission and court to enforce them. And where we have shared goals – from tackling climate change to cross-border crime and human trafficking – in an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies – we cannot afford to give up on ways that help amplify our voice and protect our interests.”

Better but still no cigar.

The failure of politicians in the UK on all sides to make the positive case for Europe is one of the reasons why the debate about a referendum has now reached fever pitch. An ‘in/out’ referendum can be won but politicians who favour remaining in and pushing back the UKIP tide must start to make the positive case.

European Union Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.