To judge by Joshua Powling’s comment (“A full exit from Europe may be the likeliest option”,
February 20, 2013) and the interview with John Wallace, the UKIP candidate for Pulborough in the county council elections next May, those who want Britain to leave the EU feel their time has come. I would like to put the point of view of a convinced European.
First, I object to the title of Mr Powling’s comment. The United Kingdom cannot leave Europe for the simple reason that it is part of Europe - geographically, historically, culturally and, I would add, politically (when Americans, Asians and Africans talk about the Europeans, they mean us as well as our continental neighbours). It is one thing to talk about our role in Europe or relations within the EU, it is quite another to talk as if we are somehow apart, outside.
Secondly, it is true that since the Prime Minister’s speech, an in-out referendum (in or out of the EU, that is) is now on the cards. But Mr Cameron’s speech was not a Eurosceptic diatribe, far from it. He paid tribute to the EU’s historic role in building a peaceful Europe after centuries of conflict, in healing the historic division between France and Germany and more recently between western Europe and the countries of central and eastern Europe after the end of the cold war. He stressed the enormous importance for Britain of the EU’s single market.
And he promised to campaign “heart and soul” for Britain’s continued membership of a reformed EU if he could negotiate a new settlement.
I share Mr Powling’s hope that we can have a serious debate about the benefits and the costs of Britain’s membership of the EU but that debate must be about the changes we would like to see in the way the EU is run, not just the in or out question. Incidentally Mr Wallace is quite wrong to say that Mr Cameron is crazy to think he can renegotiate our terms of membership having said that he is in favour of staying in the EU. The opposite is the case: if the Prime Minister were to say he was against EU membership anyway none of our partners would have any reason to negotiate with him. Mr Cameron was quite right to make the case for continued membership.
The main issue on which UKIP is campaigning is immigration, specifically from Romania and Bulgaria. It is worth recalling that when the iron curtain came down some member states wanted to strengthen the institutions of the EU before admitting ten new relatively poor countries from central and eastern Europe (deepening before widening in the Brussels jargon).
Other member states such as the UK stressed the historic responsibility of the EU to encourage the spread of democracy and respect for human rights as well as the market economy to these countries hitherto under Soviet domination. The British government also calculated that enlargement, by increasing the number of member states and their diversity, would act as a brake on the federalist dream.
The UK and its allies won the argument on enlargement. It would be hypocritical for us to turn round and now refuse to accept the consequences, namely free movement for labour from eastern Europe.
UKIP spokesmen often blame immigration for everything from unemployment to pressure on the welfare state and housing but the evidence is scanty. Furthermore they forget that more than a million of our fellow citizens are living and working elsewhere in the EU as a result of the rights granted by the European treaties. There may be a case for tightening up the rules on access to benefits for immigrants from wherever they come, but freedom of movement within the EU is one of its greatest achievements and our partners will never agree to abandon it.
The most important issue for the UK is continued access to the European Single Market of 500 million consumers. If we left the EU altogether we would not only find our exports of goods and services discriminated against in our largest market, we would also lose our privileged position as the first choice for direct investment for firms in the US and Asia who come to Britain in order to benefit from free access to the EU market as a whole. We would also be ineligible to benefit from the trade concessions that the EU can negotiate with other countries by virtue of its size.
We could opt for the so-called Norwegian solution, i.e. free access to the Single Market on the same terms as the member states of the EU in return for applying all the EU rules and regulations on goods and services (on which we would no longer have a say) and for making a substantial financial contribution to the infrastructure funds for the poorer member states (the Norwegian payment per head is about 70% of the net British contribution to the EU budget).
Of course we would no longer be subject to EU employment and environmental legislation but I fail to see how abolishing equal pay for men and women or the rules on air pollution (of direct relevance to the current debate about measures to reduce traffic in Storrington) would improve life in this country.
There is one other factor which Eurosceptics ignore, and that is the loss of power and influence on the world stage which we enjoy as a leading member of the EU. This is not easy to express in terms of jobs or the standard of living but in a multipolar world where India and China and other emerging powers are playing an increasing role, and where the United States is increasingly focused on Asia
it would be a fundamental mistake for the UK to go down the path of splendid isolation.