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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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