The 1992 liberalisation of the airline market allowed carriers to offer cheaper flights. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

An EU explainer for the easily bored: what has Europe ever done for me?

Thanks to the EU, wine is more affordable, flights are cheaper and you can access the internet on your phone abroad without having to get another mortgage. And that’s not all. . .

Alright. Let me pour a glass of Rioja before we start talking about treaties. Mmmmm, the robust, oaky flavour of European Court of Justice case 170/78.

Bleurgh! Back in the 1980s – seriously, the judgement refers to Blue Nun and Goldener Oktober – the ECJ made the point that that the UK was discriminating against wine, in favour of beer, by charging higher excise rates on the former. This classic of EU law ruled that wine and beer are comparable products.

Beer then wine, feeling fine? Yes, but they’re “in competition because they are both beverages of low alcohol content suitable for accompanying meals or for quenching thirst”. So excise duties on wine were cut, making it more affordable.

That’s a bit of a leap. So is a sneaky weekend away with Easyjet or Ryanair. You can thank Europe for that, due to the 1992 liberalisation of the airline market, which ended the era of overpriced flag carriers dominating European flights.

I heard that was a British idea... It was! But could we have made it happen without EU membership? Errrr, Non. Fares got cheaper, new routes were covered, and new airlines were set up. Just remember to print your boarding pass out at home.

So I’m going to drink my non-overtaxed rioja, fly to Spain and take some seriously smug #selfies when I get there. That’s cheaper because of the EU as well. Since 2007, the cost of calls, text and data when travelling abroad has been forced down by Europe-wide price caps. Commissioner Viviane Reding – known for her magnificent selection of chandelier earrings – shouted at telecoms companies to cut roaming, then capped them when they didn’t. The policy went further under the equally mightily-earringed Neelie Kroes, and the price has been going down ever since – like the luminous cocktails in your holiday pics.

Alright. I concede they may have done some useful things. Like equal pay for men and women, back in the seventies. That one’s got an airline theme as well, because all the relevant cases started with the now-defunct Belgian flag carrier Sabena and an air hostess called Gabrielle Defrenne. And then all the cases on rights for pregnant workers...

Oh, marvellous! Maybe I should listen to Ode to Joy? No, although it has been the EU anthem since 1972, in a version arranged by funky beatmeister Herbert von Karajan. Don’t worry, it’s “not intended to replace the national anthems of the EU countries but rather to celebrate the values they share”.

Does it get played all the time in Brussels? No, in fact I can’t recall it ever hearing it outside of this one amazing taxi with a very enthusiastic Greek driver. He has a CD of all the national anthems and puts on yours when you get in. Guy’s a Brussels legend.

There must be some reasons we should be looking at the overwing exits. Yes, definitely – the EU is very far from perfect. Top of the list for most critics is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In his excellent book The In-Out Question Hugo Dixon calls it the “the ugliest EU policy” and it’s hard to defend the scheme, which subsidises farms based on their size – meaning millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is funnelled to needy rural indigents like... The Queen.

Well, she’s got a lot of regions to rule. Mmm, yes. Regional spending isn’t great either: projects like the flat ski slope are favourite examples of euroskeptics, Portugal built miles of useless motorway, and local politicians love to splurge EU money on an airport.... which may never get any flights. In fact the European Commission has clamped down on state aid for ridiculous airports. The EU budget is also, since the Lisbon treaty–

No treatiezzzzzzzzzzz OK we’ll do the budget, and borders, another time. The point is, leaving because of the CAP, fisheries policy (also reformed but still not great) and inefficient spending of regional funds would be like realising the plumbing in your bathroom is broken... and burning your house to the ground. As the wise Mr. Dixon concludes, we might as well stay in and fix it.

What about TTIP? The first thing to note about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is that these are by far the most transparent trade negotiations ever conducted by the European Union. That’s because the parliament – which got its powers extended under the Lisbon treaty – has pushed for maximum transparency during the talks. The parliament is the one to watch here – in 2012 it derailed ACTA (remember... the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which was going to stop generic drugs and #breaktheinternet).

All that stuff about it representing citizens’ interests? Indeed. It’s even put TTIP position documents online and set out red lines which were put in the negotiating mandate before talks started. They make the point that, done right, TTIP could bring growth and jobs to Europe by creating the world’s biggest bilateral free-trade area.

Yeah right, I heard it’s a ploy to sell the NHS. Well, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who is actually in charge of the talks, wrote that “we will never agree or negotiate a deal that would limit the UK’s freedom to run public services like the NHS exactly as it wishes... All EU free-trade agreements include specific clauses to safeguard public services”.

What about “our” commissioner, Jonathan Hill? He co-signed that article. The commissioners meet weekly – known as the college – to discuss what’s happening. Though, according to one Brussels insider, Peter Mandelson found it rather dull when he was a commissioner and only went “to see what Neelie was wearing that week”.

See, there’s nothing wrong with being easily bored! Right, it happens to the best of us. We can talk about what Brexit might look like next week, so there’s Nor-way you’ll want to miss that.

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.