Is it time to leave the EU?

Frederick Forsyth, against the EU

I spoke at a debate earlier this week organised by the Spectator, with the subject of “Is it time to leave the EU?”; naturally, I was against the motion.

Also on our side were Denis MacShane MP and Phillip Souta, director of Business for New Europe.  The opposition, proposing the motion, were journalist and author Christopher Booker, novelist Frederick Forsyth (“The Day of the Jackal”), and Conservative MEP (and habitué of these pages) Daniel Hannan.  The Spectator has written a report of the debate here, but I summarise some of it below.

Christopher Booker, quite correctly in my view, argued that there is no middle way on the subject of membership of the EU.  Either you are in or you are out, and that eurosceptics were mistaken in thinking that a half-way house could be negotiated.  On the other hand, if the break-up of the EU is “as certain as anything in history”, why spend one’s evening at a debate on the subject?  My own view is that nothing is certain, and particularly not the future of the European Union.

Frederick Forsyth was full of certainty about things that I think aren’t quite true.  Jean Monnet was against nations, he said: no, he was against national sovereignty, which is a very different matter.  Democracies don’t go to war with each other, he said, which is not the view of scholars who have studied the historical record.  One cannot be both British and European at the same time, apparently; one or the other but not both .  This must come as some surprise to Bavarians to discover that they are no longer German or Texans who are no longer American.

Daniel Hannan extolled the virtues of Switzerland and its non-membership of the European Union (read a debunking of that political and economic case here).  Switzerland has many virtues, agreed, but they are nothing to do with non-membership of the European Union.  Furthermore, for a man who professes a belief in free market economics, he was remarkably ready to treat trade as a zero-sum game, rather than as an activity that benefits both parties.  If the EU is declining as a share of the world economy, that is because poorer parts of the world are growing faster – this is a good thing, not a bad thing.  And supposing that trade links with the EU preclude trade links with the rest of the world is mercantilist nonsense coming from such an unlikely source.

My own argument in favour of EU membership centred on the political benefits that follow.

First, there is the opportunity to shape the world’s largest market.  A single market is better than a free trade area because it prevents governments from intervening in competition at national borders to protect domestic lobbies at expense of domestic consumers.  To be part of a single market boosts trade accordingly – in the British case, that trade grew 50 per cent faster as a result.  If one thinks that trade is a good thing and the route to prosperity, then that is indeed a result.

Secondly, there is the fight against crime.  The European Arrest Warrant has speeded up the process of bringing criminals to justice: bank robbers from south London can no longer skulk on the Costa del Crime.  To the concerns that people were being exposed to miscarriages of justice, there are proposals afoot to complement the Arrest Warrant with more procedural protections for the rights of criminal suspects in foreign courts, and of course for the rights of foreign criminal suspects in our own courts.  No doubt the British eurosceptic media will give these proposals a warm welcome.

And thirdly, there is the quest for influence around the world.  The British economy is not what it was – sterling now makes up only 4 per cent of the world’s currency reserves – and neither are the British armed forces.  Spain and Italy each have two aircraft carriers, France has one, but the UK can afford none at all.  We could decide to withdraw from the world, to renounce any attempt to defend our values and encourage others to respect and even adopt them, but that isn’t my view of Britain.  I want to be part of a country that actively engages in the world and shapes it for good, and to do that, we have to be part of the European Union.

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A vote was taken among the audience, at the beginning of the debate and at the end, with the following result:

At the start At the end Increase % increase
For the motion 314 470 156 49.7%
Against 77 116 39 50.6%

The proponents of the motion can be well pleased with the outcome, but, as Rod Liddle, the chair of the debate, said to me before the start, for the pro-Europeans this was probably an away fixture.

However, if one looks at the percentage increase in the vote, we can take some confidence.  The pro-European vote grew faster than the anti.  If continued, those rates of growth would, in a further 234 debates’ time, on which occasion more than 9 x 1043 votes would be cast (that is to say 9 followed by 43 zeroes), deliver a majority for remaining in the EU.  Time is on our side.

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