EU membership, like any club membership, has rights (what we get out) and obligations (what we must do to obtain those rights). In many cases, a right (for example the right of exporters to access the single market) matches a corresponding obligation (exporters in other EU countries have the right to access the UK market on the same terms).
UKIP in particular, but Eurosceptics in general, have a tendency to focus on the obligations without also mentioning the quid-pro-quo of the rights. For example, Farage has publicly said many times that membership of the EU entitles 500 million EU citizens to come to the UK without any controls. Whilst technically correct, he never mentions that 60 million Brits also have the right to go to 27 other EU countries without controls. Nor that the likelihood of all 500 million even thinking of coming here is infinitesimally small and, even if they were to do so, the now empty continent would provide great opportunities for us in Britain! As a result we hear from them of the millions of EU citizens that come here but very rarely of the millions of Brits who have gone to the EU. We certainly don’t hear from them any solution to the problems that these Brits will face in the event the UK votes to leave the EU (some of whom are in denial that they will face such problems). Instead we hear the same superficial and worn-out arguments for leaving the EU.
It is often said that EU “health tourists” come to the UK for “free” treatment, whilst ignoring the fact that we all (via our EHIC card) have the right to access health care across the EU and that expat Brits in the EU have the same right as locals to their healthcare services. The same can be said about “benefits tourism” in the EU: those coming here have entitlements but so do Brits going there. Whether the costs of one are substantially different is not something I can answer, merely to point out that these are “reciprocal” and attempts to curtail the rights of EU citizens in the UK will have the inevitable consequence that the rights of UK citizens throughout the EU will be curtailed.
The EU Arrest Warrant is frequently characterised as favouring other EU states unjustly extraditing innocent Brits to face “inferior” justice systems, and ignores the many fugitives from UK justice [e.g. 21/7 bomber Hussein Osman, child abductor Jeremy Forrest] who have been quickly returned to face our justice. If the system is abused by zealous Poles using it to enforce parking fines or Greeks and Bulgarians to extradite mis-identified football supporters who wait in jail for a year before being vindicated, then let’s deal with those abuses. It is actually shockingly xenophobic to suggest that the justice systems of other EU states are bound to be inferior to UK justice and so we should assume the EAW system will operate against UK citizens. The idea we could leave the EAW and negotiate 27 extradition treaties that are better is nonsensical. If, objectively, some EU states need to improve their justice systems then that is best done within the EU frameworks, not from the outside. Moreover, if it is also true that some EU states protect their citizens from unfair extradition via the EAW, then the UK should be capable of doing likewise without leaving the EU.
On many other topics, UKIP claims the EU has “forced” the UK to accept laws that constrain what we can do in our economy. These range from restrictions on state intervention in the economy, through banning of protectionist state procurement rules, to environmental rules. What they forget is that in most cases it was the UK that pushed for these rules, in the face of protectionist instinct in much of the rest of the EU. From the Thatcher administration onwards, subsidies and protections for industries in the UK have been strongly discouraged and Britain wanted, and still wants, similar restrictions elsewhere in the EU to be abolished so there is a level playing field. If Britain wants its companies to be able to access EU markets in a fair way, it has to ensure that foreign companies have fair access to our markets. Similarly with Royal Mail and Rail privatisations: these were not forced on a reluctant Britain by an over-arching EU. Britain wanted to privatise state owned industries to ensure market forces operated in these markets (irrespective of whether you approve of that), and it wants the same throughout the EU. Instead, UKIP focuses on those French, Spanish and German utilities that have acquired privatised UK utilities, whilst ignoring UK telecoms, Banks, insurers, energy companies and retailers that have entered EU markets directly or via acquisitions. One wonders why, given UKIP’s former reputation as a libertarian, Free-market party. Do they advocate state subsidies and protection for UK businesses now? They don’t say.
On environmental matters, it was not the EU that required the UK to enact the Climate Change Act. Britain, along with most other EU states, recognised the issue of climate change and pushed for coordinated EU action and policies and leverage this for coordinated UN action. In domestic legislation it went further and faster, which it would not have needed to do if the primacy of EU legislation “forced” it on us against the will of parliament. However, if we truly want a level playing field in these and other areas, the UK needs the EU to ensure that other countries follow our lead rather than (as some Eurosceptics want) pursue a race to the bottom.
On social and working conditions, the intent is firstly for safety in the workplace but also to protect workers from exploitation and responsible companies from unfair competition from exploitative employers. However, the EU Council of Ministers hardly sets a good example when it holds all night summits after a full working day and a (presumably) alcohol fueled banquet. Yet they expect to negotiate and make good decisions during these summits?
It is like a glass half full or half empty argument: the same facts can be used to put a positive or a negative spin. Moreover the Eurosceptics focus on a few exceptional cases of abuse rather than the majority which show the policies do work. In this narrative, Britain has nothing to learn from other countries and they don’t deserve the historic freedoms that Britain and Brits have experienced.