More influence if we stay

We have learned so much

(as reproduced by London4Europe at http://www.london4europe.co.uk/more_influence_if_we_stay)

Our correspondent, who writes under the name Future of our Children, shows how the Brexit debate may have inadvertently strengthened Britain’s future influence inside Europe – though only if we use the People’s Vote to Remain. We have learned so much – let us not waste our knowledge on Brexit but put it to better use for the benefit of the UK and all Europe, our own neighbourhood.

The June 2016 EU Referendum was hugely divisive and caused much distress, especially within families and between friends who voted in opposing ways. It is understandable, therefore, that there is no great enthusiasm for a repeat performance! However, nearly two years on, we understand much more about our relationship with the EU and the implications of different potential Brexit scenarios on our lives – especially the lives of young British people. It seems only right, therefore, that, as envisaged by the People’s Vote campaign, voters should have the option of either endorsing any draft agreement made by the government or indicating their preference that, given this new knowledge, the UK should continue to remain a member of the EU.

What we have learned

The main message coming out of the negotiations so far is that, if it leaves the EU, the UK cannot reasonably expect any future relationship that is as favourable to the country as are the present arrangements. We won’t benefit from a future trading agreement that is as frictionless as the Single Market unless we subscribe to all the obligations that go with its membership – most notably to the freedom of movement of labour between EU member countries and to accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The government’s own (secret!) figures are claimed to show that any Brexit scenario will leave Britain less prosperous and therefore less able to invest in better health, education, care for the elderly, social security and housing as well as environmental stewardship. A recent independent study supports these conclusions.

A second emerging impression is that, though there are some opportunities for entering into new bilateral trading agreements, these will not open up British access to very large potential markets, comparable in size and accessibility to the EU’s Single Market. They may also take years to firm up and come with nasty strings attached!

What we have also come to understand better is that, if only because of our juxta-position to EU member countries, we are bound, even as an island-nation, to continue to be deeply affected by the Commission’s programmes and policies after we cease to be a member of the EU. This applies not just to trading arrangements but also to the many other issues that are addressed collectively by EU members. These include defence, security, environment, human rights and nuclear facilities as well as the activities of many of its decentralised agencies. We and our neighbours share many similar problems and, where these have transboundary dimensions, they can only be effectively addressed by well-orchestrated joint actions – whether they refer to air and sea safety; many aspects of environmental management, including those related to climate change; banking standards; international crime; food safety or the prevention of human and animal diseases – and so on. We have also learnt that there are big benefits from collaborative scientific research between institutions spread across the EU. Going it alone on all such topics is futile.

Brexit: rule-takers

If Britain leaves the EU it may be able to buy its way back as an associate member of the institutions that handle these joint programmes, but it is unlikely to be able to secure a place in their management or to have nationals working as staff members. We will thus forfeit our capacity to shape policies and programmes that will ultimately impact on our lives. We may claim that, by dropping our full membership, we are “taking back control”, but, in fact, we are abdicating our responsibilities, becoming rule takers rather than staying as rule makers.

We need a new certainty

The huge uncertainties over the outcome of the disengagement process have played havoc with individual and corporate investment planning and have left many people in a state of confusion and worry. What we all really want now are not more years of fruitless negotiations and transitions to unknown outcomes but a new certainty so that we can get on with our lives, free of the tensions that have emerged in the last two years.

Harness the ideas and relationships of the Brexit process to improving the EU

Surprisingly, this new vision could emerge as a by-product of the Brexit debate. In spite of the problems that the referendum unleashed, it has also had the very positive impact of stimulating a wealth of thinking across all sectors on how an “independent” Britain could improve its policies. Perhaps the most visible example of this has been the work done by Michael Gove’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on reducing plastic pollution and shifting to truly sustainable farming and land management systems. While this was focused on defining future British policies, these are also relevant to the rest of Europe – though Gove would be the last to admit this!  As a result of such initiatives, taken by civil servants, special interest groups and political parties, in all sectors, Britain, if it was to stay in Europe, would be advantageously placed to become a leader in reforming EU policies. In DEFRA’s case, for instance, the UK could contribute very constructively to reshaping the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The negotiating process itself and the creation of David Davis’ Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) has presumably built up a deep understanding amongst concerned civil servants of the workings of the EU and has probably also nurtured bonds of trust and mutual confidence between people on both sides of the negotiating table. These assets, created to facilitate our exit from the EU, could equally well be be harnessed by the UK to enable it to become a highly influential member of the EU as it grapples in future with the kinds of problems that led British voters to opt to leave.

As one example, Britain could turn its back on its failed approaches to reducing immigration through creating a “hostile environment” towards migrants and by setting unattainable limits on the number of EU migrants entering the country, thereby excluding itself from the Single Market. Instead, it could stay in the Single Market and work with the European Commission to reduce the “push factors” that now drive EU citizens to migrate by helping it in levelling the social security and benefits playing field and opening up labour markets in main migrant source countries. The resulting welfare improvements would reduce the flow of people intending to seek work in the UK.

The EU’s central mission: peace

Finally, we need to remind ourselves that the EU emerged from the idea that, after 6 years of horrendous conflict between European countries, everything possible must be done to prevent any other such war. The current wave of sabre-rattling between the UK, the US and Russia, combined with a rise in ultra-nationalism in some countries and the perverse hijacking of social media, runs a real risk of degenerating spontaneously into an open conflict which would be a total disaster for our country and the world as a whole.

As parents and grandparents, our highest hope is that our children and grandchildren should be able, like us, to live their entire lives in peace and prosperity and to bequeath to their descendants a healthy planet. We believe that this is best assured by the UK continuing to retain its place in Europe as a full partner, applying its talents in shaping its future policies. We fully agree with Boris Johnson who wrote in his inspiring biography of his mentor Winston Churchill, that it was his “idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they could never go to war again – and who can deny that the idea has been a spectacular success?”.

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Brexit Poses Risks to Reciprocal Healthcare Programmes

 

Brexit Poses Risks to Reciprocal Healthcare Programmes

 

One of the great unsung achievements of the European Union has been its creation of highly efficient but yet simple ways of guaranteeing us free or subsidised access to national health services in other EEA countries and Switzerland as we move around.

 

These take two main forms. The first and much the largest is the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which assures national health service treatment to visitors while they are spending short periods in any other member countries.  The second, known as S1, has ensured that nationals of one country who are resident in another member country can benefit from access to the medical services provided by its national health services on the same terms and conditions as its own citizens. Most S1 participants are recipients of UK old age pensions, living in other EU countries. The future of S1, however, is uncertain following the UK invocation of Article 50 and will vary between host countries.

 

Over 27 million British people have EPICs and quite a lot of them must have been through experiences like those of our friends’ daughter, Olivia. who recently visited Malta with her parents and partner. On a trip to the smaller island of Gozo, in her haste get into the sea, she slipped amongst the rocks and banged her head on one – nothing too serious, but an ambulance arrived and took her to Gozo General Hospital. The medical treatment she received was prompt and of a high standard. She was cleaned up and given a stitch on the back of her head, and then a CT scan was organised to ensure there was no further damage. In fact, this showed that she had no problem with her head injury, but the consultant explained that the scan had highlighted blocked sinuses. She had been complaining of slight headaches for a number of months, but she put them down to eye-strain: although she had mentioned them to her doctor, no action had been taken. So it took a trip to Malta and a nasty fall to diagnose the problem!

 

With an EPIC, getting immediate free and competent medical attention over a thousand miles from home could not have been simpler.

 

I and my wife are British citizens who have lived and worked in Italy for decades. We have enjoyed equally positive experiences in using our Italian-issued EPICs when we have briefly visited our native Scotland. We are also recognised as S1 beneficiaries in Italy because we have paid voluntary contributions into UK National Insurance throughout our working lives and now receive old age pensions from Britain.

 

When we were visiting her brother over Christmas a couple of years ago, my wife was diagnosed with suspected pneumonia by the local GP and ended up in Ayr hospital for a week of top class treatment, funded, with no fuss at all, through EHIC.

 

Three years before that, at home in Italy, Roberta skidded on some wet floor tiles, fell heavily and broke a hip. The ambulance came quickly and whisked her off to Grosseto hospital. The next morning, she was given a hip replacement and was brought home by an ambulance after a week. A few days later, our GP came our house to remove the stitches.  The district nurse (his wife!) came too and arranged for 10 free physiotherapy sessions at home. The social security manager in the local council also offered us the option of help in the home for several weeks – which we declined as we felt that we could cope. Thanks to the S1 programme, this was also free of cost and of bureaucracy!

 

Many people who use these programmes have no idea that they have been created by the European Union but are implemented by each member country through its social security and health service providing institutions. As in the case of so many other EU programmes, there is no question of a need for “taking back control” because the shape of the programme in each country is already defined and managed at national level. The European Commission has, however, invested heavily in creating operating systems that make it easy for responsible national institutions to communicate with each other electronically and to manage funding in a coordinated and transparent manner.

 

It is extremely worrying, therefore, that the continued access of UK nationals to both these excellent reciprocal healthcare programmes is at risk after Britain leaves the European Union on 29th March 2019. The risks stem from the fact the programmes are based conceptually on the idea of ensuring and facilitating freedom of movement of nationals between all EEA member countries: if the UK government continues, as part of its negotiating strategy, to claim a right to restrict the freedom of movement of EU citizens into the country, it inevitably not only excludes itself from a future frictionless trade deal with the EU but may also find itself without full access to the full benefits of the reciprocal health programmes.

 

These concerns have recently led the House of Lords Inquiry on “Brexit – Reciprocal Healthcare” to observe that “The Government has repeatedly emphasised that one of the fundamental objectives of Brexit is to bring an end to free movement of persons: this is, indeed, a ‘red line’ in negotiations between the UK and EU. If this red line is adhered to in full, it follows that one of the fundamental rationales for reciprocal healthcare arrangements, as they have evolved during the UK’s EU membership, will disappear upon Brexit.”

At the time of the EU referendum the “Leave” campaign never told us that we would be putting EHIC – and our wellbeing – into jeopardy if we voted their way. It is now the moment for voters to make an objective reassessment of all that we stand to lose if the government continues to pursue its “hard” Brexit approach with no care for what it means for all of us. As it now looks, we seem bound to lose some of the economic benefits of being part of the single market and customs union, and the ease of travelling around Europe, including free access to health care, that we have become so used to could become a thing of the past.

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EFSA

The European Food Safety Authority is one of the 40 or so decentralised agencies of the European Union that do much to improve our welfare and to assure the smooth conduct of our relations with the other 27 EU member states. If Britain leaves the EU and the single market it will not be able to stay a member of these agencies but will almost certainly have to conform with their regulatory regimes if it seeks to enter, as a third party, into a new trade deal with Europe. The UK would have to pay for the services provided but would have no say on their management.

 

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

My wife and I try to produce almost all the vegetables that we eat. We would like to do the same with fruit but have not yet succeeded, partly because we squeeze fresh oranges every day for breakfast, and oranges won’t grow here. As any gardener knows, small-scale food production requires a lot of manual work. However, it gives us considerable satisfaction and cuts our shopping bill. More importantly, it helps us to reduce the amount of pesticide that we eat. Like so many other people, we are increasingly concerned about the potential impact of consuming pesticide residues in foods on our health and longevity, as well as the dangers posed by pesticides to insect and bird populations and to biodiversity

We, therefore, think that one of the most important functions of EFSA is to assess the safety of pesticides and to recommend to the European Commission whether they are suitable for their approval for use in food production. As anyone who has been following the neonicotinoids saga in recent years knows, EFSA’s advice is often controversial, pitting environmentalists and health practitioners against industrial-scale farmers and the makers of the products in question. Recently EFSA has toughened their opposition to unrestricted use of “neonics”, noting that there is convincing evidence that they are harmful to the health of bees, endangering the pollination processes that are so vital for the production of so many crops.

I have to admit that we worry that EFSA is unduly dependent on the reported results of trials conducted by pesticide manufacturers because it does not have the resources that would be required to carry out or sponsor the independent trials that are so badly needed to underpin robust conclusions on product safety. A further concern is that, while EFSA assesses the risks of specific products, it is only just beginning to look at the cumulative effects of the combined use of pesticides, some of which may be relatively harmless in their own right but could become more dangerous when used in combination or sequentially.

EFSA is one of the newer EU agencies, having been founded in 2002. Its headquarters are in Parma in Italy, the “home” of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham.  It employs around 450 staff, about 10% of whom are Brutish, and runs on an annual budget of about Euro 80 million per year. It has the very broad mandate of providing the European Commission with scientific advice and risk assessments on all aspects of the food chain including food and feed safety, nutrition, animal health and welfare, plant protection and plant health. Its assessments are not confined simply to identifying risks to human health but also addressing farm animal health and environmental impacts.

To carry out its functions, EFSA works in very close collaboration with national institutions with similar mandates in each EU member country and it serves as a common point of reference for them. In the UK, its main links are with FERA Science Ltd (GB), the former Food and Environmental Research Agency (FERA), now run jointly by DEFRA and a private sector services provider (Capita). EFSA’s partner on plant health is Crop Health and Protection (CHAP).

The food industry is now enormously international, providing consumers with a wide array of choices of fresh fruit and vegetables drawn from all corners of the earth. Often processed foods contain ingredients coming from many different countries: they may be manufactured in yet another country and distributed in several others. This makes tracing foods back to their original producers extremely complex, and it also provides a fertile breeding ground for food fraud. This is well illustrated by the 2013 horse meat scandal which was first detected in Ireland and then surfaced in Britain, just as FERA’s inspection capacity was being cut back as part of the government’s moves towards de-regulation. The lead responsibility for following up the adulteration of beef products with horse meat across Europe was assigned to Interpol rather than to EFSA as it was perceived as a result of criminal activity rather than as a threat to food safety. It eventually led to investigations across 19 countries and to several arrests.

One of the strongest arguments for Britain to remain in EFSA is that so many of the threats to food safety have cross-border dimensions which are magnified by the increasing movement of people and goods. This was very evident in the case of mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) which was first identified in Britain in the 1980s and found to pass to humans who had consumed meat from infected animals. Eventually it led to the slaughter of 4.4 million cattle and over 150 human deaths. Economic costs, driven by a shrinkage of 40% in domestic beef consumption and a ban on beef exports to Europe (only lifted in 2006), amounted to over £900 million. Since its foundation EFSA has been monitoring the risks posed by BSE and advising on ways of minimising the danger of fresh outbreaks.

Another major threat to human health comes from food affected by bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria. There have been several recent cases of multi-country outbreaks of Salmonella originating in eggs and egg products that have crossed national borders. One of the widest ranging outbreaks came to light in May 2016, peaked in September that year and was brought fully under control in February 2017. It affected more than half the EU member countries. Including the UK, as well as Norway. Genome analysis-based detection by EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention traced the origins to a farm of egg-laying hens in Poland. All member countries are committed to posting notifications of such outbreaks on EFSA’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, so as to enable immediate sharing of information between countries and across the food system.

Until a few months ago I suspect few people in the UK had ever heard of chlorinated chicken. It has come to light because it is a food product which is allowed in the US but is banned in Europe by EFSA on animal welfare grounds because dousing slaughtered chickens with chlorine allows American farmers to engage in very high-density production systems in which infections thrive. It is significant for the Brexit process because, if Britain leaves the EU customs union, it may be tempted to lower its food standards in order to make an independent trade deal with the US.

If Britain has to renounce its membership of EFSA, it will cease to have a say in setting its policies and British staff would lose their positions. It is only by retaining its membership that the UK would be able to influence the shape of policies to address the many emerging challenges facing EFSA, such as those relating to antibiotic resistance in humans because of excess use of antibiotics in animal feeds; the risks inherent in the growing use of nano-technology in processed foods, or new concerns over heavy metal accumulation in fish. Experience shows that there is bound to be a continual flow of such new issues that demand work by EFSA

Perhaps, if Britain’s continued membership of EFSA would help to strengthen its capacity for conducting research that is fully independent of industrial interests, we would feel less obliged to grow our own food, confident that all products approved by EFSA would truly safe nutritionally.

 

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