At its best, twitter is an excellent medium for throwing up interesting debates. Particularly if you are fortunate enough to follow people who are articulate enough to be able to make cogent points in 140 characters. Earlier today I intruded upon just such a debate about the benefits of the EU. Blogger @PME200 was inspired to write a blog about why he strongly supported the EU http://t.co/focCGT6. As I’ve complained that pro-EU English people rarely if ever provide any reasoned arguments in favour of the EU, it is only fair that I respond and set out why I think the pro-EU case is weak. To pre-empt any sticklers for accuracy (after all both PME200 and I, not to mention most of the other participants in the twitter debate are lawyers) I shall use EU throughout rather than switching between EEC, Common Market and EU.
First, I will take the liberty of trying to précis PME200’s main arguments. These are, broadly that:
- The creation of a free trade area of 500m people is a remarkable achievement but the EU was from its inception always a political as well as economic project so it is misleading to say that we only ever signed up to the free trade zone.
- If the UK just wanted the free trade aspects and stepped back into EFTA membership like Norway it would still have to pay a lot while getting nothing back from the EU development funds (eg ERDF), would still have to implement EU laws but would get almost no say in how those laws were made.
- The lasting and unprecedented peace in the EU and the eradication of the serious Franco-German tensions that characterised the previous centuries are due largely to the EU.
- The EU has promoted the rights of every citizen through the ECHR, social policy measures, immigration and unencumbered movement in the Schengen Area and has secured consumer benefits such as the lowering of mobile phone roaming charges that could not have been done by individual national regulators.
The curious thing about this set of pro-EU arguments for me is that I broadly agree with them, even though I think that there are other parallel causes for some of the effects attributed to the EU which may be stronger. The core of my opposition to continued UK membership of the EU is that there are few if any substantial benefits to membership which could not be secured by sovereign decisions of the UK independently of the EU. This is not limited to the economic benefits of membership of a free trade area, even though these are probably the most significant benefits of membership of the EU in practice.
Creating a large free trade area is impressive and has been of value but that does not mean that continued membership of the EU is essential to the UK’s interests. It would be possible to gain access to the single market not only by moving into the second division of EFTA membership but also by entering into bilateral arrangements either with the EU as an institution or even with a single EU Member State. As a practical matter it would be peculiar for the EU, however piqued it might be by a future UK decision to leave, to refuse to sign a bilateral trade treaty given that the UK would remain a significant market for many EU businesses. Even if this did transpire, the temptation for say Ireland or one of the other small EU nations to sign a bilateral agreement making it the preferred route between the EU and UK would surely be too great to resist. Once one EU Member State broke ranks this way there would be little in it for others to attempt to hamper interstate trade with that Member State, not to mention that such behaviour would be antithetical to the idea of the EU being a free trade area.
I agree that the political ambition of the EU was there from the start and that it is quite likely that the Heath government was somewhat disingenuous in selling membership on the basis of it being just membership of a free trade area. However, it is fair to say that the political aspects of the EU really only came into practical application much later. Back in the 1970s and 80s there was still much heavy lifting to do in creating the single market as the fundamental economic freedoms in the Treaty of Rome had not yet coalesced into practical legal positions. When doing something like ensuring mutual recognition of other Member States’ professional qualifications or stopping Member States from divvying up lucrative public contracts amongst national champions was still a matter for Law Journal conjecture the idea of a 27 nation federal superstate was sufficiently theoretical not to be high in many minds.
As I mentioned, EFTA membership is not the only way to keep in a European free trade area. However, I don’t think that the argument about the weakness of Norway’s relationship with the single market stack up that strongly. When the UK joined the EU there was real value in being part of the decision-making and legislative process because almost all legislation required unanimity amongst the then 12 Member States. This meant that tiny states like Luxembourg had a veto and accordingly a strong say in legislation. Understandably at the time this meant that EU Member States were careful about not expanding membership to countries that were likely to spend their entire time going “no”.
Now, things are different. Few areas of EU legislation are now subject to unanimity and the larger membership means that it takes a lot more than a single large Member State and a small ally to block or change legislation. The EFTA states would in practice gain only a superficial additional say in things by becoming EU members because they are all small countries. As small and generally rich (Iceland aside now) countries they also would get little from the ERDF, just as the UK lost a great deal of its ability to use EU or domestic money to regenerate deprived areas as the EU grew to include several relatively poor new members.
I won’t say too much on the EU as the reason for the last 65 years of peace in Western Europe. Clearly the co-operation between the combatant nations of WWII on the European mainland as they all worked to rebuild their shattered economies and societies was highly significant. The EU cannot take all the credit for the peace though. The parallel military co-operation of NATO and particularly the pre-emptive backing of the USA for the security of Western Europe is likely to have been at least as significant and a big departure from the situations prior to the two World Wars when the USA attempted to stay out of European conflict until this became untenable.
The final set of pro-EU arguments sit around the impact of the EU on our rights. Assuming that the ECHR has been overall a good way of promoting rights in the UK it is worth pointing out that the UK was one of the founders of the ECHR, which predates the EU, as well as having ratified the Convention well before becoming a member of the EU. While it is a requirement of EU membership to sign up to the ECHR, signing up to it doesn’t require EU membership.
As for the other social policy measures of the EU, these are a weak reason for membership. There is nothing in them which could not have been legislated for by the UK Parliament had it so wished. My personal view is that social policy elements are what helped to turn the mainstream of the British Left towards being pro-EU. The Labour Party had had a principled stance on the EU up until 1983 when it stated that in order to take the radical steps it proposed to save British industry it would (á la Lord Sugar in the Apprentice), with regret have to negotiate immediate but amicable withdrawal from the EU. Leaving aside the description of its 1983 manifesto as the longest suicide note in history, there are echoes of this Old Labour approach in Gordon Brown’s pledge of “British Jobs for British People”. The reality is that EU membership necessarily prevents Parliament from acting freely and principally in the interests of the UK. Old Labour understood this and was traditionally suspicious of the EU because of it, particularly as the economics of the fundamental freedoms from the Treaty of Rome is very clearly “neo-liberal” and free market.
However, a long period out of government and in opposition to a Conservative Party that was at best unlikely to prioritise social policies that were on the EU agenda followed up by the entertaining spectacle of eurosceptics holding Major’s wafer thin majority government to ransom made supporting the EU on the basis of its social policies very expedient. The fact is that those social policies could have been enacted by a majority government that liked them – the EU was not needed to provide their benefits. As Major had negotiated an opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty it wasn’t as if the EU would have been able to deliver those social policies in the UK prior to a change of government.
PME200 can have the European Commission’s action on mobile roaming charges as this has been quicker and more effective than national action might have been (although fixed line telecoms interconnection rates fell far more rapidly in the 90s without the Commission forcing it), but it is hardly the stuff to get the sceptics changing their minds. A counter-example might be postal services liberalisation, which would have been more difficult to achieve without being done on an EU level, but there aren’t a lot of people using it as an example of the benefits of the EU.
One does not need to be a “little Englander” to think that the benefits of EU membership are overstated, that those benefits could be equally well obtained without membership and that whatever the historical benefit of the EU as a cohesive force preventing war, the UK could leave it without setting the French and Germans at each others’ throats in the Alsace. That huge negatives of the EU like the CAP, which is particularly disastrous for agriculture in developing countries having access to the EU’s 500m consumers, don’t need to be brought into the debate to show the inessential nature today of the UK’s EU membership is just the icing on the cake.