From Bergen-Belsen to arguments about e-bikes: the EU in context
Family, Facebook and the referendum make for a potent cocktail that not everybody wishes to sip, but Pro Europa supporter Bryn Watkins has been engaging thoughtfully to add context to relatives’ discussions about the EU – and to explain why for him, Remain is the clear choice. These are two excerpts from his conversations earlier in June.
1. A merry tale of E-bikes
One of my relatives (whom I love very much) was frustrated that he didn't seem to be able to find an electric bike of the strength he wanted. He blamed EU regulations, which at first glance seem to ban any e-bike over 250W. He felt that the rules were designed to protect European manufacturers and that leaving the EU would make it easier for him to buy the products he wanted. But I headed off to Wikipedia, and things were not quite what they seemed. Fancy reading a Friday evening rant about product market regulation? :-D
"Hi ___ . Always great to see some debate about the way that EU regulations affect the lives of citizens. It's so important to make this stuff concrete, and this is a really interesting case. It sits at the boundaries of trade law, health and safety and product market regulation.
Now, I understand your frustration with this law, as it seems to be stopping you buying a product that you want to buy. But not everything is what it seems. I think we can start by agreeing that there will always need to be some kind of regulation of the products sold on the market - the question is how strict it should be, whether we should do it at EU or UK level, and whether things would improve if we leave.
So, e-bikes are potentially dangerous pieces of equipment which have major implications for their riders and other road users if used badly. They tend not to require any licensing before use, unlike a motorbike or car. They can also be dangerous to the rider if they are not of a high enough quality. That's why different jurisdictions set power limits. But these power limits are not on the bikes that are allowed to be sold, but on how strong they can be before strict product testing and the requirement for driving licences kick in.
Here I'll just focus on the testing, as that is covered by EU regulation and explains the 250W figure. In the case of e-bikes the question is: "At what strength does an e-bike stop being a 'bike' and become a 'powered vehicle'?" Bikes are not subject to full safety testing (called 'type approval'), powered vehicles are.
So, the EU sets that limit at 250W, but the UK actually has a lower, stricter limit of 200W. The UK is more tightly regulated, so leaving the EU would not change anything. It would actually make it harder to get the semi-illegal bikes between 200W and 250W into the country! In summary: 250W e-bikes can be sold according to EU law without full safety testing, but the UK has decided to set a lower limit of 200W. Neither jurisdiction bans 350W bikes as such, they just insist that the bike would need to undergo EU or UK approved safety testing before you could buy it, so as to be sure it wouldn't blow up. Many companies from both inside and outside the EU seem to chose to produce lower-power versions for European markets to avoid this regulation and sell their products as 'bikes' rather than 'powered vehicles'.
Now, these tests are barriers to trade in some ways, and are difficult for start-ups and new products. Companies might not be able to navigate the process of getting through the tests, which can be complicated and expensive. But we need these regulations to protect consumers. And at least having shared regulations for the 28 EU members and their 500 million customers gives a greater incentive to companies to give it a go. You get approved once and you get access to that whole market. A patchwork of different systems, where the UK only offers 65 million consumers, might find itself with a lot fewer products on offer. A UK outside that market on its own would probably just have to stick to the rules anyway.
But never forget: the UK wants you to be more tightly limited in your purchases of e-bikes than the EU! I think it's interesting that people say we need to leave the EU in order to free ourselves from over-regulation, but the UK often has stricter health and safety regulation than the EU minimum. I therefore find it unlikely we'd get rid of it all if we leave!
(As an aside: Under the TTIP deal currently being negotiated with the USA we would co-recognise US type approvals on a whole range of products, so these 350W US bikes could probably be imported without additional testing - although they would still be sold as powered vehicles and UK regulations would say you need a driving licence. However, many groups across Europe, including in the UK, are exercising their democratic right to fight against TTIP and slow it down. Who said EU decision-making couldn't be changed by the citizens?!)"
2. My uncle's childhood in Bergen-Belsen
No _____, our ECONOMY is made up of businesses, our country is made of PEOPLE. There's more to this than the economic argument, which I think we've taken as far as it can go, because it's essentially become your free-market liberalism versus my fondness for customers not dying. In fact, I am not that fond of a lot of the current economic set-up of the EU, but for me it's a left-wing critique of how capitalist it is, rather than your worry that it overburdens business. Now, I could start talking about the environment, about the youth programmes, about education, about workers' protections, about gender equality and gay rights. These are all areas where the EU has made a positive difference to the lives of Europeans, and it's often been the UK leading the charge. We get to take other countries with us, and they get to chivvy us along when we're falling behind.
We Europeans have created a huge free market, but we have minimum standards that stop all the jobs moving to whichever place is cheapest and had the worst conditions. That was never gonna be the UK, so the minimum standards are good for us. Our young people have so many opportunities that just didn't exist 50 years ago. Look at me, I'm from a very normal family, but I've lived, worked and studied in 4 European countries without needing to be rich or a refugee. Look at you, you grew up in an army base clearing up the mess from last time we all fought, and now you flit backwards and forwards between your British and French homes. What will you kids make of the next 20 years if we stay? There's so much freedom and opportunity.
But actually, even that is not what really matter to me. What matters is history. What matters is the fact that you were a child in the wreckage of Bergen-Belsen, playing on train tracks while your British family helped bring stability to a country that had committed and experienced terrible things. A country we'd twice had to defeat in destructive wars. But now war between us unthinkable. To me this is actually all about peace, solidarity and finding some way for Europeans (who normally spend our time killing each other) to work and live together - and all this in a world where our little corner is ever-less-important, a world that is ever-more-interconnected. I see that here in Brussels every day: nations, states, regions, social movements, businesses, fighting for their interests and beliefs with words not guns. It's not efficient, and I don't agree with all the decisions that get made. But I think it is so important that it exists.
Above all, the EU means that it just matters less which European state is in your passport, and where in Europe you live. This might not sound important to people who "belong" unambiguously to the nation state they were born in and live in. But what about Northern Ireland? What about the Hungarian speakers in Romania? What about the German-French frontier lands? These are all areas where borders have constantly led to wars, but where the EU has brought some kind of stability because the border just matters less. Bugger vacuum cleaners, I want peace in Europe, and that's why I'm fighting to stay!