The Before and After: A baby boomer’s view of EU membership

EU flag
Photo credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos / Flickr

Having been asked to write this article, I had to think long and hard about the before and after of the UK’s membership to the EU. Memories dim and can sometimes be distorted, and it’s also so easy to build an unrealistic picture, good or bad, to suit one’s own opinions or judgements. But for what it’s worth, here are some of my perceptions. Of course you may or may not agree — so many past experiences are often influenced by personal emotions and other events of the time.

Whenever I think of life before joining the EU my mind immediately turns to food. I loathed our ‘cuisine’ and I particularly hated meat and two veg. It bored me rigid. The meat was overcooked, the veg boiled within an inch of its life, and mashed potato full of lumps. I remember our version of fast food. Anyone remember Smash (powdered stuff you added water to)? Eek! Shop-bought sandwiches were curled up at the edges (no one thought of covering them with anything) and butcher meat was hung from the ceiling, open to any interested flies, and boy were they interested. I really had little interest in food until I discovered ‘foreign’ food, though I do still enjoy the occasional Sunday roast.

The difference is that we can now add all sorts of wonderful European ingredients to our plates. Unless you were lucky enough to have travelled extensively, no one had heard of extra virgin olive oil, croissants, Brie or garlic bread. Peter Kay’s “Garlic bread?” sketch (2003) aptly encompasses the attitude of many at that time to ‘foreign food’.

Unless you were lucky enough to have travelled extensively, no one had heard of extra virgin olive oil, croissants, Brie or garlic bread.

Moving on from this, and much more importantly, it is health and safety, workers’ rights, human rights and environmental issues that have had the greatest influence on my life as a British European. Many of our beaches were dirty and polluted; food wasn’t properly stored or hygienically handled; work related injuries and accidents were much higher and more frequent; compensation much harder to receive; and the word ‘recycling’ would have simply conjured up an image of getting on your bike again.

We worked the longest hours compared to other European countries and homophobia, racism, and sexism was the norm, as many of our television sit-coms and stand-up comedians of the time revealed. However, one of the biggest post-EU-membership changes made in the county I grew up in was the regeneration of many rundown areas, some of which were rough and ready to say the least. They are now totally unrecognisable from when I knew them and are much more attractive places to live. In fact, some of the house prices are not much cheaper than those in the South East where I now live. This is all largely due to EU funding.

I know that not everything about European membership is, and never has been, cosy and perfect. Anyone remember the food mountains? Hundreds of tons of food discarded because quotas had to be adhered to, which subsequently led to huge gluts. A disgrace particularly when there were so many around the world suffering starvation. However, after an outcry by all concerned, these quotas were greatly reduced or discarded altogether.

The problem with trying to identify the pros and cons of life after joining the European community is that much of it is barely visible. While we’re all getting on with our busy lives and leaving much of the decision making that will affect us to the politicians, many things pass lightly under our radar. Some can only see disadvantages, others the opposite, and then there’s the rest who can see both. But not all find it easy to decide which the worst of the two evils is. As you’ve probably already guessed, I fall mainly, rightly or wrongly, into the second camp.

The problem with trying to identify the pros and cons of life after joining the European community is that much of it is barely visible.

I love the fact that, with the amalgamation of the British Human Rights Act and the European Human Rights Act, discrimination of all varieties has been dramatically reduced. Whoever imagined that members of the gay community would be allowed to marry? Just as importantly though, racist chants during our national game of football have been stamped out.

However, it’s as an ex-healthcare professional and university lecturer that I have witnessed first-hand what this act has meant for those of varying faiths and those with disabilities. In the health service, policies were drawn up that led to compulsory disability awareness training and to changes in recruitment methods of people with disabilities (I hate using the umbrella term ‘the disabled’). Lecturers were also required to attend disability awareness training, all of which I found highly enlightening. In fact, I’d always thought I was ‘enlightened’ but instead I was amazed at how little I really knew or understood. Whether working in a hospital or university, all students were formally taught about how to recognise discrimination of any sort in themselves and in others. It was also vital that, in a multi-cultural society, we were aware of the requirements of all faiths when treating patients.

The right to education led to the introduction of courses that would allow non-traditional students (those without formal school certificates of education) access to career progressing qualifications. Prior to this act I remember a hospital colleague of mine whose son had dyslexia having a long and protracted fight to get extra help for him within his school. Now all schools, colleges and universities are required to provide proper assessment and support for people with this disability.

Whether any of the above would have taken place had we not joined the EU is of course debatable, but one thing I am sure of is that it wouldn’t have happened quickly. I always felt that as a nation we were largely resistant to change and that any progress was always irredeemably slow. That of course is a purely personal opinion and I am sure many will disagree. But that’s the beauty of human nature and living in a democracy — we’re allowed to disagree and openly share those disagreements.

What the future holds for our country is yet unknown, but after my initial despair at leaving I’m hopeful that by eliminating the disadvantages of EU membership we can take forward with us all the good things we gained.

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Alexis is a keen gardener and Radio 4 enthusiast, currently enjoying her recent retirement from the healthcare profession and higher education.