The single market is perhaps the EU’s greatest achievement, and encompasses much of what the EU is all about. As the name suggests, it refers to the EU as a single territory without the need for internal borders or other regulatory obstacles to the free movement of goods, services, people and capital – otherwise known as “the four pillars” of the EU. There are two main ways in which the EU does this, firstly by removing barriers to trade, and secondly by unifying national rules at an EU level.
In terms of trade, the EU enables free movement of goods and services by removing barriers such as import tariffs or quotas that can make doing business with one country more costly than another. This means that products we import from Germany face no additional tariffs or costs than products we import from Spain, and the same goes for our exports going the other way. As a result, products from within the EU may be cheaper than the equivalent from say, the USA. Consumers also have more choice as French cheese, Danish bacon and Belgian beer can all be bought as if from a British source with no extra charges. The EU also brings together member states to co-operate in accepting and adhering to a set of common trading standards. Positive integration – or unifying national rules at an EU level – allows products to be produced according to a single EU standard, rather than having to meet different requirements to sell in different countries. This helps ensure common health and safety standards for example, and puts an end to protective national rules that are prohibitive for international sellers. On the other hand, some people argue that positive integration allows the EU to interfere too much, and can mean unhelpful or arbitrary regulations in some cases. Examples include rules over how much noise lawnmowers can make, or how powerful vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, kettles and toasters can be. The argument is that rules like these stop us from producing the best products we can compared to non-EU nations, and that non-exporters of such products are unnecessarily restricted.
Free movement of people is another of the EU’s four main pillars. It means that EU citizens are free to look for work, work without a permit, reside and enjoy equal treatment as nationals within any EU member state. Equal treatment means in terms of access to employment, working conditions, tax and social advantages, and in some cases the right to have qualifications recognised abroad. These rights cover jobseekers, EU nationals working in another EU country, EU nationals returning to their home country, and the family members of any of those people. These rights may differ for the self-employed, students, retirees and the otherwise economically inactive (not working or looking to work). The definitions of those who can exercise the right to free movement are not always simple, and there are various restrictions that can vary from country to country. Access to out-of-work benefits varies – for example, Austria and Belgium require an amount of previous work experience, whilst France and the Netherlands have a waiting period of several months. Whilst individual nations can alter restrictions to an extent, there are increasing wide-spread calls for reform of the rules to restrict access to benefits, amidst growing concerns over the movement of people from relatively poor or troubled countries to relatively rich ones. 26 countries (22 EU members and 4 non-EU) are members of the Schengen Agreement too, which allows passport-free travel across most of Europe. The recent Paris attacks and migrant crisis have sparked fresh criticism over Schengen and how it limits nations in policing their borders. Despite recent tensions, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker insists that free movement will be safeguarded and that Schengen is here to stay.
The single market accounts for over 500 million consumers and 21 million SMEs. A fully functioning single market stimulates competition and trade, improves efficiency, raises quality and helps cut prices. By creating an environment built upon transparent and consistent rules, it offers legal clarity and certainty, and forms a community where people, goods, services and money can interact freely.