The members of this Coalition Government pride themselves on being the great de-centralisers and have proposed a series of measures to amend or scrap intrusive domestic legislation. But if this agenda is going to have any credibility whatsoever, the Coalition must take it to Brussels with full force and seek renegotiations of a slew of misguided EU laws. And they must do so now.
Encouragingly, this week we have seen signs of ministers beginning to wake up to the fact as two exceptionally bad EU laws again hit the headlines: the Working Time Directive (WTD) and the European Arrest Warrant (EAW).
These two laws are textbook examples of EU legislation gone out of control: both are hugely disproportionate and have evolved in a way that was not at all foreseen when UK ministers first signed up to them, in turn creating a range of unintended and negative consequences.
Using the Government’s own figures Open Europe has calculated that the annual cost of the WTD is currently estimated at between £3.5bn and £3.9bn, making it the most expensive EU regulation for the UK economy each year. And unnecessarily so.
In recent weeks, there has been a wealth of stories in the media about what the WTD has done to the NHS. Remedy UK, the junior doctors’ pressure group, said that the Directive had resulted in a generation of junior doctors receiving “minimal and sketchy exposure to ‘real medicine’.”
At the heart of this problem lies the combination of the WTD’s ludicrous caps on working time, rest periods and on-call time, gradually imposed by the EU and the European Court of Justice while the UK was standing idly by. As the then Health Minister John Hutton said back in 2003 “it was certainly not within the intentions of the United Kingdom Government when we signed up for the Directive that time spent asleep would somehow magically count as time spent at work.” But seven years later, it still does. The UK now needs to seek a full opt-out from these rules.
The Tories have regrettably back-peddled on their promise to repatriate power over EU social policy – for a range of reasons ( ) social and employment policy doesn’t belong at the EU-level.
But the Coalition did state in its manifesto that it would “limit the application of the Working Time Directive”. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and the Department of Health have also said they have “made it a priority” to renegotiate the Directive. However, in the words of the President of the Royal College of Surgeons John Black, “It is frustrating that there seems to have been no progress other than declarations of intent.”
The UK would have the support of several other member states, which have experienced similar problems within their public sectors as a result of the WTD. Now it needs to get to work.
Similarly, the Home Secretary Theresa May has announced a welcome review of the UK’s extradition agreements, which will include the application of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). The EAW, agreed by the previous government in the wake of 9/11, represents knee-jerk policymaking at its worst, denying citizens any meaningful protection or justice.
Reminiscent of the WTD, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett now says, “I was right, as Home Secretary in the post-9/11 era, to agree to the European Arrest Warrant, but I was insufficiently sensitive to how it might be used.” In total 1,032 people – almost three a day – were detained and extradited by British police on the orders of European prosecutors in 2009-10, up from 683 in 2008-09.
What justification can there possibly be for extraditing over a 1,000 people from the UK in a single year without so much as reviewing the cases against them (under the fast-track rules, judges can only rule on procedural matters not the evidence against suspects)?
Greater efficiency is not a sufficient excuse for doing away with due process and stripping people’s rights to justice – particularly as the EAW is now being used for a range of crimes which cannot possibly be regarded as “serious”. Therefore, the UK should pull out of the EAW altogether and re-establish bilateral deals with the other member states, which once again allow ministers and or judges to review suspects’ cases before they are extradited. Such arrangements could still involve fast-track procedures for genuinely serious crimes, such as terrorism.
For both the WTD and the EAW, there are allies to be found in Europe, if the Coalition decides to go for it. Over the next one or two years, the UK has a few key leverage points to work with, including a veto over a new multi-year budget deal. The Government should make life difficult unless the EU’s powers are rolled back – starting with these two laws.
A failure to achieve substantive results will only add to the disquiet already felt among certain sections of the Conservative Party and an even larger slug of the electorate. The time for idle chat is up.