Turning our backs on the EU now would not only have immediately damaging economic consequences, it would also mean turning away from one of the most important vehicles of individual liberties and freedoms ever created.
The core principle on which it was founded – that the freedom of goods, capital and people to flow unimpeded across borders are self-evident economic and social goods – remains sound, and over the last 60 years has served to benefit Britain immeasurably. It isn’t perfect, but instead of giving up, the right course of action is to lead for reform from within.
The most pressing objection to EU membership, that the ‘open door’ immigration policy it enforces on Britain is damaging, simply doesn’t hold water. On the contrary: EU immigration policy has been overwhelmingly a good thing for Britain. EU migrants in the UK are 30 per cent more likely to hold a university degree than the native population, and are half as likely to receive benefits or tax credits. Because most arrive specifically to work, the cost of their education has already been paid by their country of origin, and we don’t pay much for their pensions or healthcare.
In any case, of the 1.5 million EU nationals who have emigrated to the UK since 2004, around half have since left. Meanwhile, there are also 1.5 million Brits living in the EU. The free movement of people has served to benefit the British economy and the diversification of our society.
EU membership also brings with it considerable benefits in the form of free trade with Europe, and the clout that comes with being a member of the world’s common market (boasting a GDP of $16 trillion) when negotiating with other internation- al partners. Were we to leave, we would have to formulate innumerable bi-lateral treaties which, with the largest players like China, the US and Germany, would quite simply be very much on their terms.
The uncertainty this would cause, with myriad different regulations for each agreement, would be anathema to British exporters looking to keep costs low and for long-term security. It is unsurprising, then, that in a poll of the British car manufacturing industry, 92 per cent of respondents wished to stay in the EU, while 70 per cent believed that leaving would have a negative effect on their businesses.
As Vince Cable, the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, has rightly argued: “Being part of the EU has helped to make the UK one of the leading locations for investment”.
In any case, the fact of the matter is that there is no simple binary of remaining in the EU and having law dictated to us by Brussels, or leaving and being free to decide ourselves. As Switzerland and Norway have found, in a modern, economically interdependent Europe, complete national autonomy is impossible – whether we are inside the EU or out, we will be compelled to follow many of its rules and regulations.
Despite being outside of the EU, Norway has implemented about 75 per cent of its laws, while its financial contribution to the EU is, per capita, higher than the UK’s. The Swiss government, meanwhile, has acknowledged that its position out-side the EU has been damaging “in terms of jobs, value creation and tax receipts”. Far better, to stay at the table, and have a hand in formulating the policies that will invariably affect us whether we like it or not.
Leaving Europe would represent a step backwards, away from the principles that have allowed Europe and the UK to flourish in the post war era. Alone, we are a medium-sized ex-superpower with little international clout; as a member of the EU we are, and can continue to be, a key decision-maker in an organisation with far-reaching global influence.
It has been 40 years since the UK has held a popular referendum on EU membership, and then the beast had a different nature. The initial common European market has evolved into a political union and transference of power from Westminster to Brussels, with it an increasing number of obliga- tions and restrictions upon the poli- cies of the United Kingdom. This new reality demands a reevaluation of Britain’s place within the EU, one that must involve not only Westminster and Brussels, but the British people themselves.
European integration is problematic on the grounds of sovereignty and self-determination. To what extent are the British people confident in surrendering the right to control their own policy? The numbers aren’t enthusiastic – very few Brits are wont to identify culturally as ‘European’- and a plurality – 46 per cent, in fact – view the EU as a ‘bad thing’. 26 polls conducted in 2013 on the question drew 23 ‘outs’, two draws, and a single ‘in’.
In Europe, Britons hold a mere 73 of the overall 766 spots in the European parliament, which itself can only ap- prove and amend laws, not propose them. The power to introduce legislation is given to the European Council, within which David Cameron, the prime minister, is the sole British representative, and the only one of 26 members to belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists party.
This presents a democratic deficit, especially considering that roughly one fifth of laws and regulations currently prevailing in the United Kingdom come from Brussels. The reality is that much of British policy is determined in a manner in which the British have no say, with real consequences for the nation.
One such policy is that of unconditional immigration. Proponents of ‘in’ draw a false dichotomy between unconditional immigration and no im- migration at all – a sensible and controlled immigration policy is enough to fill labour and skill shortages and alleviate issues with an aging population without providing uncontrolled access to nover 450 million EU residents. An influx of foreign labour hurts domestic labour by decreasing its value, and an increase in population requires a corresponding increase in availability of services, housing, and infrastructure.
The UK in the immediate requires a 250,000 new primary school places, and faces a housing shortage of 1.1 million homes by 2020. It is difficult for government to effectively meet these challenges because it cannot control the flow of peoples to the UK from the EU.
Membership within the EU means that Britain has also relinquished control over the right to determine its own trade agreements. As it currently stands, Britain cannot bilaterally en- gage with in trade negotiations with the emerging economies of the world – it must work through the framework of the EU as a whole. Proponents of ‘in’ argue that Britain has more ‘clout’ as being part of the EU, suggesting that Britain would both lose out in intra-European trade and international negotiations.
The reality is not so certain. Britain is the world’s sixth largest economy, and contains the world’s largest financial centre. It has quite a strong position within Europe, and in the mutual interest of all parties could easily strike free trade agreements. Yes, Britain would have to follow certain regulations to trade with the European Union, but that is the nature of all business: after all, Britain has to sell cars to the US with the driv- er’s wheel on the left-hand side.
The EU also imposes tariffs on non-EU imports, which proves costly for import-heavy Britain when acquiring products from Eastern nations or the United States. This protectionism also poses a disincentive for emerging economies to trade with the EU; were Britain to go at it alone, it could be a far more nimble competitor.
Ultimately, the underlying issue to consider is one of sovereign principle, and to what extent devolution of power – without direct assent from the population – can or will be tolerated. The rising tenor of the Eurosceptic movement means that it is time for serious reform – otherwise, the British people will find membership simply unpalatable, vote ‘no’, and leave the project altogether.