I have long had a sense that the EU suffers from a double-sided problem. One is that it gets the blame for perceived negative outcomes that are not its fault or that would likely be even worse in its absence. The other is that it frequently does not get credit for positive outcomes that is its due. I lack the resources to test this hypothesis in a systematic and scientific way. But the anecdotal evidence piles up.
A good example that neatly combines both errors comes in the latest of the Guardian’s stimulating The secret life series, in which anonymous authors tell “the inside story of what the world of work is really like”. Today’s piece is by a truck driver and contains many interesting insights into that trade and how it has developed over the years on Europe’s roads. Its sub-title is striking: at the sharp end of what the EU means, I want out. And this is not a case of the sub-editor blowing up or distorting a relatively minor part of the story. The trucker-author really is miffed about the EU. The article concludes with the phrase chosen as sub-title, preceded by “Like almost all of my colleagues I voted leave in the <UK’s EU> referendum.”
Two explanations are offered. Competition from eastern Europe (“English hauliers have had almost all their European work taken from them by eastern European hauliers … The EU, as it applies to truck-driving, has meant flooding the market with cheap foreign labour, which is perceived to have forced down wages and worsened working conditions.”) and people trafficking and related violence in and around Channel ports (“nowhere within 300 miles of the Channel is safe”).
On both counts it seems odd to blame the EU and to see Brexit (or the Union’s dissolution more broadly) as in any way a solution. Competition from eastern European hauliers is a “problem” for which the only “solution” would be to raise the Iron Curtain once more. Being able move freely and sell services (subject to basic rules and conditions, on which more shortly) is a precious freedom and an important channel for raising productivity. A country leaving the EU could theoretically, it is true, impose restrictions on its home turf. But this would little affect the international business in which the author is engaged, and is in any case only a theoretical possibility because of the likelihood of reciprocal restrictions that would drive up transport and thus final-product costs very substantially. Similar consideration apply regarding illegal immigration. This is clearly a challenge for the EU and its Member States. But the problem will not go away if the EU ceases to exist. And can a serious case be made that the situation would be improved by dismantling the EU cooperation framework in this area?
But probably more striking still is the unwillingness to credit the EU for positive developments. There is a bried mention of reduced border checks (prefacing a long “but”). Looking back over a long career the anonymous trucker notes the EU-imposed limitations on maximum driving times and minimum breaks. Yet the tone suggests unnecessary and complex bureaucracy that complicates tour planning. He then notes that trucks
thankfully, are equipped these days with digicards: credit card-sized chip gizmos which record our every movement and are impossible to falsify, so all transport businesses now run legally. Everyone operates on the same playing field (…) I’m insured. The trucks are taxed. Bribery and other shenanigans are almost unheard-of. We drive top-of-the-range trucks with fridges and night heaters and get paid on time. In the old days, at least when I started, the opposite was true.
Yet to whom is he thankful? The spontaneously generous trucking employers? God perhaps? Or could it be that many of these improvements are due (alongside technological progress) to the involvement of the EU in this quintessentially cross-border sector? Have not these EU regulations limited the obvious potential for a race to the bottom in this area, which would have driven down truckers’ working conditions across Europe and compromised road safety and the environment? To be very concrete: can the trucker not see that, in the absence of the driving-hour limitations that he finds irksome the eastern European hauliers would have been mightily tempted to compete not just on wages but also on working hours and technical vehicle standards?
One is reminded of the comic What has the EU ever done for us? But actually it is not funny at all. Millions of working people across the EU are convinced that the political and economic union of the (currently) 28 has brought them many disadvantages. In fact where negative outcomes have occurred they very often – and here I explicitly exclude the appalling mismanagement of the euro crisis from this defence – have other causes, while at the same time they are unaware of, or unwilling to credit, the positive contribution made by the EU to their well-being. As a result they are drawn to nationalistic populists of various hues peddling pseudo-solutions that will leave them worse not better off. Of course this does not mean that current EU regulation is necessarily optimal. (I am not a haulage expert, but for instance EU agreement on higher fuel prices would seem an obvious step for ecological reasons.) But increasingly the focus is not on improving the EU framework that is there. It is about turning the clock back to a supposed golden age that is in fact a dangerous mirage.