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3 March 2015

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. . .

By Frances Robinson

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.

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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.

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