Thank you for the invitation to come and speak here today. The question of British membership of the European Union is an important one, as I am happy to explain. In the few minutes of my opening remarks, I am going to focus on three things. First of all, what is the state of British political opinion about membership of the EU? Secondly, what does it actually mean for Britain to be a member of the EU? And thirdly, what would be the consequences of leaving? That way, we can have a debate about the future of Britain and Europe based on the facts of the case.
What is the state of British political opinion?
So, first of all, the state of British political opinion. Britain is a member of the EU thanks to a decision by government and parliament, which was confirmed in a referendum in 1975. In fact, if you look back through the records, you find that the last 13 general elections, have produced majorities in parliament for EU membership, going back as far as 1959.
So, there is historically a broad consensus that Britain belongs in the EU. And, that’s true today, too. We all know that the political parties have different positions on different aspects of the European question, but on the basic issue of EU membership we are discussing today the three main parties all agree. Here is a statement by one of them:
“I am a firm believer that Britain’s place is in the European Union, a strong player in Europe, not at the margins.”
That statement was made by William Hague, the Conservative shadow foreign secretary, on 7 June 2006, that is, only last month. Even the Conservatives say this now.
There are explicitly anti-European political parties, it is true. But what happens to them when it comes to the polls? In the general election last year, for example, TV chatshow host Robert Kilroy-Silk, probably the most well-known campaigner against EU membership, got less than 6 per cent of the vote. And he stood in what he thought was the most sympathetic constituency: 6 per cent of the vote, that’s all.
So we see that the consensus in politics is that EU membership is a good thing. I say that not because it proves that leaving the EU is impossible, but rather that it is very unlikely. The challenge is then thrown down for campaigners against EU membership to make their case: let them try.
But we can listen to them safe in the knowledge that they have a very steep hill to climb.
And what makes that hill extra steep is the range of benefits we get from being a member. This is my second point, what it means to be a member of the EU.
What does it mean to be a member of the EU?
You probably know that the EU started with 6 members and now has 25, with yet more countries applying to join. The fact that the EU is enlarging is a sign that it is a success. They wouldn’t all be queuing up to join a failure, would they?
The EU is leading the search for common European solutions to the problems of peace and war, to the fact that environmental pollution freely crosses national borders, to the way in which organised criminal networks get round national systems of control. A common approach is needed to deal with these threats, and that’s what we get through the institutions of the European Union.
Something like 50 per cent of our trade is with the rest of the EU, up from about one third when we joined in 1973. And there’s quite an important reason why our trade has grown faster. Traditional theories of trade concentrate on the abolition of tariff barriers, which are effectively a tax on imports. It’s better to cut those tariffs and abolish those taxes, and in a free trade area this is what happens.
A drawback of this system is that there are many ways other than tariffs to keep out imports. Customs checks, notification requirements and differential product standards may all be applied to foreign goods entering the national market to put them at a disadvantage as compared with domestic production. The effect of this is to reduce the gains arising from the customs union.
The reaction of the European Union to this situation was to launch a programme to create a single market. The regulation of business and commercial activity that had previously been organised nationally would be transferred to the European level in order to ensure the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour. This did not necessarily mean deregulation – the abolition of these national rules – but rather re-regulation – their replacement with common rules at the European level. The European institutions would acquire the power to lay down the law in areas such as food labelling, health and safety, telemarketing, and many others. Any company operating in the European marketplace would have to pay regard not only to national legislative provisions but also to European law, which would define directly many aspects of how a company or an employee must act.
So the European Union has led to a much deeper and more effective economic integration than would be possible in a mere free trade area. And the price of this? Well, there are two prices to be paid.
The first is in more intense economic competition, and there are some people who object to this. However, there aren’t many people who think that way these days. On the whole, the argument that competition is good for the economy, improving products and services and lowering prices, has been won.
The second price is that we have to share our political decision-making with people in other countries. There are people who object to this, too.
What would it mean to leave?
And this brings me to my third point, what would happen if we were to take the advice of the people who think this way and actually leave.
They are always careful to say that we would keep our trading links and maintain friendly relations with the countries remained in the EU. And for the purposes of this debate, let us assume that this is true.
But the point about the EU is that it is based on more than just trading links and friendly relations. It is based on a set of institutions that make sure that these links and relations remain open. That is what all those other countries are hoping to join. It’s not simply the trade or the friendship they want, but the membership. Membership of the EU makes the trade more productive and the friendship deeper.
And this is why discussion about EU membership is important, even if it is not politically controversial. Because it is a way of understanding exactly what EU membership means, and that’s the really interesting point about this debate.
The EU has created institutions and the rule of law to govern the relations between its members. That’s why it works. To leave the EU would be to say that these institutions and this rule of law do not work. And more than that, it would also be to say that these institutions and this rule of law cannot work.
There are problems and imperfections in the EU institutions, certainly, and there is a debate going on about how to deal with them. To say that Britain should leave the EU is to say that this debate cannot succeed. That Britain will never agree with its nearest neighbours how to make shared institutions work and how to have a common rule of law.
And that is a really sad conclusion to reach.
Think of the biggest challenges facing our country today, things like climate change or the fight against terrorism or the possible spread of bird flu. They can’t be dealt with by our country alone: they require cooperation with other countries, too.
The European Union is the best example of how different countries can work together, in an increasingly democratic and effective manner, to agree common solutions and to reach common goals. If we can’t overcome the difficulties thrown up by working with our closest and nearest neighbours, how on earth are we to find ways of working with countries and cultures much more different from ours?
Leaving the EU for something better would be idealistic but unrealistic. Leaving the EU for something worse would be a terrible mistake. There are problems, yes, but we can solve them rather than give in to them. That’s why Britain should remain a member of the European Union.
Based on a talk given by Richard Laming to the Newman Society, London Oratory School, on 13 July 2006. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.