High Heels and Leaving Europe

This article was published by Social Europe 3 June 2013

High Heels And Leaving Europe


As so often we have to look to foreign papers to understand what is happening in Britain. In a lengthy Q+A interview in Die Welt published last month (18 May), the Europe Minister, David Lidington sets out the UK government’s position on Europe. Like the Prime Minister in his speech in January he insists the government does not seek to leave the European Union. Britain should stay a member but in a different Europe. But as he is probed by his interviewers to try and find out what exactly the government does not like about Europe and what exactly the UK wants repatriated in order to satisfy the government to the point of recommending a ‘Yes’ vote in a putative 2017 referendum the Europe Minister, a decent, hardworking, likable Conservative politician finds himself unable to offer a real answer. Instead he lists for Die Welt these problems areas which he says get up the nose of his fellow citizens.

Why in heaven should decisions over the shoes hairdressers wear be decided in Brussels? Why should Brussels occupy itself with the opening hours of shops instead of leaving it to local decisions? Why can my local hospital no longer operate 24 hours a day because of a decision by a court sitting in Luxembourg over working time rules?

All of Mr Llidington’s questions are perfectly valid. But they are not based on facts. The story about the EU deciding what shoes hairdressers should wear broke in the off-shore owned tabloid press last autumn. The Daily Mail reported that: ‘Hairdressers will be banned from wearing high heels and jewellery under nanny state proposals being drawn up in Brussels’. The Sun went in for one of its ‘hilarious’ headlines HAIR HITLER over the story.

Sadly I have so little hair left my visits to the hairdressers are over so fast I cannot notice if the person at work with razor and scissors is wearing high heels or not. But there is no EU directive. All that has happened is that employers’ and workers’ representatives – Coiffure EU and UNI Europa Hair & Beauty – rather than the EU itself are drawing up proposals to reduce the risk of accidents. UK hairdressers are themselves represented by the National Hairdressers Federation, which forms part of Coiffure EU.

The draft agreement does include a clause that stipulates: ‘workers shall wear suitable clothes for their activities or workwear clothing and, in particular, shoes with non-slip soles.’

However there is no mention at all of ‘banning’ high-heels. The Daily Mail reported a spokesman for the UK National Haidressers federation saying the new proposals – which his own federation is negotiating – would cost £75 million a year. Presumably getting all our hairdressers off their high heels (anyone seen a hairdresser in high heels recently?) and leaving their jewellery at home is an expensive business.

But is this really why we have to have a referendum?

So what about Minister Lidington’s assertion that that the EU, not local councils, were deciding shop opening powers. They vary so much all over Europe that the claim Brussels can dictate them seems very odd indeed. Austria’s constitutional court has just OKed a decision to extend shop opening hours in Austria though again, the idea that shops staying open longer is a constitutional issue seems strange.

Finally, it was impossible to find details of reduced services in the hospitals serving Mr Lidington’s constituents, including the famous Stoke Mandeveille hospital. It is true that in 1994 a directive was adopted to limit working hours in hospitals which in Britain led to exhausted junior doctors working beyond human limits with damage done to patients. The British government resisted implementing this for as long as possible. It also objected to a European Court of Justice ruling that said once doctors had reported for duty they were on shift and at work even if they were able to catnap during slack periods of the day or night. This is no different from overnight work at say the FCO, or police and emergency services, or even the BBC where I once did nightshifts. Of course people rest and sleep if nothing is going on but they are still at work and available for duty.

Other EU countries, richer or poorer than Britain, have come to terms with the idea that doctors should not be worked for very long stretches which is bad for their and patients’ health.

So a close examination of Mr Lidington’s main complaints about the EU in his Die Welt interview show them to be empty of substance.

Are we really to hold a referendum with the likely result of quitting Europe over high heels, shopping on Sunday and stopping doctors from being so exhausted they harm patients?

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