Yorkshire once led the UK to understand what the point of the European single market was and what problems it would solve. Where they began, others followed. In 1989, when the single market had become more than a twinkle in the eye of British and other European politicians, businessmen and communities, Hull City Council and the now defunct Humberside County Council set about making the Humber ports Yorkshire’s gateway to Europe.
Hull and Humber pioneers
The councils pioneered European weeks involving everyone from local councils to ports, trades unions, students, schools, gardening and sports clubs, tea dances and nurseries to discover what the single market would mean for them.
They explained how removing internal borders and regulatory obstacles inside a big single market could help boost trade, improve efficiency, raise quality and contribute to local prosperity.
On 1 January 1993, the single market took off. Its impact is everywhere.
Inside the EU, there are harmonised standards and a quality kitemark – the CE mark – which we shaped and followed. We now have to find a new one. The UK influenced what the single market was and also its future, including investments like those with blue plaques marking EU co-funding for ventures from turbines to waste processing, community colleges and sports halls across the UK and EU.
Why have a single market?
In the 1980s, there were widely shared concerns that Europe was uncompetitive on the global stage and that it had unnecessary barriers between its then 12 member states that handicapped it.
For example, you had to order things in advance and sometimes wait days or weeks for deliveries. Goods made in one member state had to be modified to meet local standards in other EU states and be subjected to disruptive, lengthy bureaucratic form-filling before they could be exported to another EU state. This affected everything from plumbing parts and cars to cakes and cosmetics.
Sometimes, a difference of a millimetre or two in the design of a car handle meant that, whereas it was fine to go on a car made in Spain, it wasn’t okay for one in another EU state. As a result, the manufacturer had to make different sets of handles for the same car before exporting it within the EU. And manufacturers faced exports charges and quotas that depressed sales.
Consumers were affected too. A manufacturer could sell the same tin of sardines with differing weight of oil relative to fish in different member states.
You could holiday in Europe but there were limits on bringing back food, and on how much alcohol, perfume or tobacco you could bring back. If you wanted to send someone a gift, you had to fill out little green forms (customs declarations) and cross your fingers that the recipient wouldn’t be lumbered with customs charges when it arrived.
And in those days, the countries had separate currencies. No euro. And no way could you use your chunky mobile phone without incurring prohibitive roaming charges every time you crossed the border travelling from Hull to Rotterdam and on to Belgium or Denmark or Italy.
Getting rid of barriers
The single market aimed to remove barriers to what was called the free movement of goods, services, persons and capital: the ‘four freedoms’.
The UK firmly supported this. Hauliers and exporters across the country abandoned the 14 pages of customs forms they typically had to fill in before crossing the North Sea or Channel and subsequent land borders. This saved them time, costs and bureaucracy. One common procedure replaced the forms they had earlier had to complete and ultimately helped to keep prices to consumers down.
But you had to be in the single market to benefit from this. The fact that we no longer are is why we now face higher prices. Those costs have been reintroduced and reimposed on us by the British government. Ministers and others claiming that is untrue, are at best ignorant and at worst lying.
Out of the single market
When we were in the single market, we could move or retire to anywhere we liked inside the EU whenever we liked. We were entitled to broadly the same welfare and health benefits, education and rights as local people.
We campaigned alongside consumer groups and unions in the EU to improve our benefits, do away with red tape and basically make the single market work for us as individuals and families. We treated the single market – the EU – as though it was an extension of the UK in which we were free to roam.
We can’t do that anymore. Next year we will need visas to go to the EU. The government re-erected borders that make our trade and lives more costly and create problems. Emergency Brexit powers for lorry queues are to be made permanent and that means higher costs all round. Police can’t access the kind of databases that they used to be able to search freely. That means combating cross border crime and people trafficking have been weakened.
Inside the single market but outside the EU
Some countries, like Norway, are not EU members but they are in the single market. So they have the advantages of the four freedoms that Brexit removed on leaving the EU.
But Norway abides by EU rules without having a say on them: it does not elect members of the European Parliament (MEPs), or have anyone in the EU Commission, or judges in the EU’s courts, or members in the committee of the regions, or the economic and social committee. No Norwegian minister votes in the council of ministers, which makes laws in conjunction with MEPs – laws Norway follows, trading a degree of sovereignty for single market benefits.
Could the UK be in the single market?
The UK could have remained in the customs union and, like Norway, in the single market but the government rejected such an arrangement, so misleadingly described as ‘Brino’ – Brexit in name only. Instead, it chose to inflict higher costs on us, stop our freedom to go when and where we liked across the EU, stopped us getting as much funding for regional development, education, training and science, and reimposed on us all those old-fashioned barriers that the single market had removed. As a result, we face food shortages no other EU country faces, and the prospect of the army being called in to deliver goods. And that in peace time.
Something is not quite right when it’s only the UK bracing for shortages, fiercely rising costs and prices. In the EU, quality fresh fruit and veg fill the shelves and people phone their friends and families across the EU at no extra cost, looking forward to when covid restrictions are lifted and life can go back to normal.
An incomplete single market
The single market is not perfect. The EU has work to do to enhance access to goods and services across the EU and boost mobility and innovation. The strategy is to enable people to work together to make this a reality.
The covid pandemic and the UK’s delay in introducing tariffs on EU imports have hidden many of the considerable costs to our country of leaving the single market. However, as the reality increasingly comes to bite, more and more of us will surely come to the same conclusion: when it comes to the European single market, life is much better in than out.