One common criticism of the EU is that there is too much regulation and red tape dreamt up by unelected Brussels bureaucrats. But leaving aside the fact that these laws are agreed by ministers from the individual governments who make up the European Union, and then only after scrutiny by the elected European parliament, what exactly are we talking about?
This question was put recently on a BBC politics show to a panel that included an anti-EU economist and a right-wing journalist, but surprisingly not the BBC’s favoured Mr. Farage. I don’t recall their names but I was struck by the fact that their answers were identical. Both blamed the burdensome regulations connected to the social dimension. In other words, the employment laws designed to ensure a level playing field across the EU.
But is this a fair criticism? What employment laws are they talking about?
One popular target is the Working Time Regulations. These set an average maximum working week of 48 hours, minimum times for breaks, and a minimum level of paid holiday. The latter gives an entitlement of just 28 days including the eight bank holidays; and the break is for one of just 20 minutes after six hours work. I don’t know about you but I’d hardly describe these as a burden. Indeed, I’d argue they don’t go far enough; and so it appears does your average employer as most workers already have much better conditions. Hardly a burden then.
Another target is anti-discrimination law. The three main European Directives in this area are now covered in UK law by the Equality Act 2010. This deals with equal treatment on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexuality, religion or belief, age, martial status and gender reassignment. Again, reasonable employers have no difficulty meeting their duties under this Act. Indeed, unless your idea of society is one governed by UKIP or the BNP, I’m at a loss as to why anyone would not support equal treatment.
Maternity rights have also been cited as a burden, particularly for small employers. But like most equality laws, they are nothing new. What’s more maternity rights exist in almost every major industrialised country. Do the critics really want to take us back to a time where women were sacked as soon as they became pregnant? Aside from being morally wrong, how on earth could that ever be a benefit to society?
Perhaps one of the biggest targets for the critics though are the TUPE Regulations, brought into law because of the Acquired Rights Directive. These protect workers when a business or service is transferred or contracted out. However, the protections, valuable as they are, do not cover every eventuality. There are many ways an employer can stay within TUPE and still make major changes, and sadly in many takeovers and mergers, jobs are lost and terms and conditions changed. TUPE is definitely not the gold-plated protection that Cameron claimed it was.
There are some other laws that Eurosceptics are quick to criticise. A prime example is the Human Rights Act. Yet contrary to popular myth, this does not come from the EU, but is instead based on the European Convention on Human Rights, something established after the war and before the EU existed. But as for why human rights are supposedly wrong….I’ve no idea.
The current government argues that for Britain to remain competitive, we should have fewer and weaker employment laws. Yet within the EU the whole point of the Directives is to create a more level playing field. Outside of the EU countries still have employment laws, often much better than ours. If every country was in a race to the bottom in terms of employment rights then their argument may hold some credence. But since we are frequently the poor relation then any lack of competitiveness will not be solved by scrapping European employment laws, or pulling out of the EU altogether.