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What did the European Union ever do for us?

Not much, apart from: 

As you can see, Dr Sweeney's piece (below) is of course modelled on a key sketch in that epic Monty Python piece of satirical comedy, the Life of Brian: 

  • Being the UK’s largest trading partner (in 2018, UK exports to the EU were £289 billion - 46% of all UK exports[i])

  • EU structural funding has supported areas hit by industrial decline throughout the UK. Investment across Europe has enabled better living standards and boosted educational, social and cultural capital

  • EU environmental law has ensured clean beaches and rivers; cleaner air; lead free petrol; restrictions on landfill dumping; a recycling culture

  • EU consumer law has brought cheaper mobile charges, cheaper air travel, improved consumer protection and food labelling; and improved product safety

  • EU food safety legislation has banned the use of growth hormones and other harmful food additives

  • Single market competition brings quality improvements and better industrial performance and single market law has eliminated tariffs on trade within the European Economic Area, while harmonisation and deregulation eliminates almost all paperwork and removes customs barriers for exports throughout the European single market, the largest in the world[ii]

  • Anti-trust law breaks up of monopolies and prevents mergers and acquisitions that undermine consumer interests

  • EU businesses benefit from Europe-wide patent and copyright protection

  • Businesses and consumers benefit from price transparency and the removal of commission on currency exchanges across the eurozone

  • EU citizens benefit from freedom to travel, live and work across Europe and have access to free health care throughout Europe. Youth benefit from funded opportunities to undertake study or work placements abroad

  • Workers benefit from labour protection and enhanced social welfare; smoke-free workplaces; equal pay legislation; holiday entitlement; the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime

  • The environment benefits from some of the strongest habitat protection in the world, while the EU also mandates minimum standards of animal welfare in food production

  • Industry and UK universities benefit from EU-funded research and industrial collaboration

  • EU soft power is exercised through 134 EU Delegations worldwide and through bloc representation in major international forums, including the WTO, the International Panel on Climate Change, and in addressing crises such as sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, the undermining of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or Iran’s nuclear programme.

  • In fighting international organised crime and terrorism, EU agencies and instruments work closely with British intelligence and policing to reduce human trafficking, arms and drug smuggling, trade in endangered species, and in support of counter-terrorism. A No Deal Brexit would sacrifice British participation in EUROPOL, EUROJUST, the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System on sharing criminal records, DNA data, and Passenger Name Records

  • EU Common Security and Defence Policy supports civil and military co-operation in humanitarian crisis management in post-conflict zones in Europe and Africa. It supports stabilisation measures, democracy and human rights across Europe and beyond. EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta (Somalia) protects shipping routes, virtually eliminating piracy off the coast of Somalia [iii]

  • Multiple EU Agencies support banking security, medicines, chemicals, food safety, rail transportation, shipping, aviation safety, health at work, disease prevention, plant varieties, pensions, fuel cell technologies, fisheries and many more besides. If the UK gives up its participation it will have to reinvent these agencies without the critical mass of transnational expertise that they are able to draw upon [iv]


The EU is not perfect. It needs reform, since it has systemic weaknesses that must be corrected. It could do more in areas where its achievements are already impressive. The Commission for example is seeking ways to combat tax evasion and money laundering.[v]


The United Kingdom will be weaker – and its soft power reduced – by any form of Brexit. 


The positives above are nothing compared with the EU’s greatest achievements: it has for 60 years been the foundation of peace between European neighbours after centuries of bloodshed. It furthermore assisted the extraordinary political, social and economic transformation of 13 former dictatorships, now EU members, since 1980.


Now the union faces major challenges, many made worse by neoliberal economic globalisation.  We in the UK should reflect on whether our net contribution of £8.9bn in 2018 [vi]out of total government expenditure of £806bn is good value.[vii] We must play a full part in enabling the Union to be a force for good in a multipolar global future.


Dr Simon Sweeney

Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy and Business, University of York, UK


A version of this text first appeared in the Guardian Newspaper in 2013. Following republishing in social media during the 2016 referendum campaign, it went viral with over 100,000 shares. The original letter can be found at:








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