Tory MP Mark Pritchard writes in the Daily Telegraph today calling for a two-stage referendum on British withdrawal from the European Union. The first stage is a referendum next year on whether we want to be part of a political union or only a part of “the trade-only relationship we thought we had signed up to” in 1975. If the vote goes for trade only, then there would be a further referendum on leaving the EU altogether if the negotiations to establish a trade only relationship were not successful within two years.
The problems with this are plentiful. First, the vote in 1975 was not only about trade. The UK had previously been a member of the European Free Trade Area but left it in order to join the European Economic Community. There is a clue in the name.
Next, those changes that have been made to the terms of British membership of the EEC (and the EC and the EU, subsequently) have been made with the agreement of parliament. It is ridiculous to claim that this process, as he acknowledges “within every new treaty”, can be said to be “mostly by stealth”. Publicly debated and written into law, the process could hardly be more clear. This blog agrees that the treaties could be written in simpler terms, but the reason for the complexity is precisely because each member state insists on details and amendments and complications to suit some particular national interest or other.
Which brings me to the third point, which is to say that to unpick the treaties in order to satisfy Mark Pritchard will add even more complexity to the system that he claims is too complex. In particular, some of the most notable changes to the EU since 1975, such as the direct election of members of the European Parliament, have to apply to all member states or to none of them. It would be a nonsense for British MEPs nominated by national administrations to expect to sit on equal terms with those from other member states with an electoral mandate of their own.
What Mark Pritchard really wants is for Britain to leave the EU altogether and negotiate some kind of new relationship with the rest of Europe from the outside. That is a perfectly reasonable position to hold, if one with which this blog disagrees, but that is not what mark Pritchard is calling for. For he knows that those negotiations, from a British perspective, would not go well.
In any negotiation a crucial determining factor is the relative importance each side places on getting a deal. To the EU, trade with the UK represents 9 per cent of its trade and 3 per cent of its economy. To the UK, on the other, trade with the EU represents 51 per cent of its trade and 32 per cent of its economy. The trade between the two matters, proportionally, ten times as much to the UK as it does the EU: the former depends much more than the latter on those negotiations going well.
Do not be misled by the fact that the trade balance is in favour of the EU, in that it exports more to than it imports from the UK, a fact that the eurosceptics love to quote. Such a number is based on the assumption that exports are good and that imports are bad. In fact, both are good. If there were no imports, there could be no exports either. Obsession with the balance of trade comes from a mercantilist viewpoint which free market eurosceptics, of all people, ought to have grown out of by now.
If Mark Pritchard wants to object to British participation in the political institutions of the EU, he should say so. Participation in those institutions stems directly from the British decision to join the EEC in the 1970s. If he wants to change that decision too, he should say so. What he should not do is to pretend that there were some halcyon days when European integration was only about trade. It never was like that and never could have been.
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Elsewhere in his article, Mark Pritchard commits another offence against the English language, using words and phrases such as “servitude” and “occupying force” to describe membership of the EU. Now, the EU is an organisation which we have joined freely and in which we participate on equal terms. To use those words to describe the EU deprives them of meaning and trivialises the experience of those people who, under communism or fascism, knew what slavery and occupation really meant.