The choice is really quite simple. In favour of staying, it is in Britain’s geo-strategic interests to be pretty intimately engaged in the doings of a continent that has a grim 20th-century history, and whose agonies have caused millions of Britons to lose their lives. History shows that they need us. Leaving would be widely read as a very negative signal for Europe. It would dismay some of our closest friends, not least the eastern Europeans for whom the EU has been a force for good: stability, openness, and prosperity.
It is also true that the single market is of considerable value to many UK companies and consumers, and that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc – that have nothing to do with Europe.
Against these points we must enter the woeful defects of the EU. It is manifestly undemocratic and in some ways getting worse. It is wasteful, expensive and occasionally corrupt. The Common Agricultural Policy is iniquitous towards developing countries. The EU is legislating over an ever wider range of policy areas, now including human rights, and with Britain ever more frequently outvoted. There is currently no effective means of checking this one-way ratchet of growth-strangling regulation, and to make matters worse the EU is now devoting most of its intellectual energy to trying to save the euro, a flawed project from which we are thankfully exempt. The EU’s share of global trade is diminishing, and the people who prophesy doom as a result of Brexit are very largely the same people who said we should join the euro.
So there is the dilemma in a nutshell: Britain in the EU good, in so far as that means helping to shape the destiny of a troubled continent in uncertain times, while trading freely with our partners. Britain in the EU bad, in so far as it is a political project whose destiny of ever-closer union we don’t accept and whose lust to regulate we can’t stop.
That is why for the last couple of years I have argued that we would be – on the whole – better off in a reformed EU, but that Britain could have a great future outside. In deciding how to vote I (and I expect a few others) will want to know whether we have genuinely achieved any reform, and whether there is the prospect of any more. So let’s look at the Tusk proposals, in turn, and ask some hard questions.
"EU leaders have apparently agreed that the phrase “ever-closer union” should no longer serve as a signpost for integration"
First: this “protection” for the UK and other countries that don’t use the euro: is it a concession by them, or by us? The salient point appears to be that the UK will not be able to block moves to create a fiscal union – a deeply anti-democratic exercise. Do we really think that they should be able to use EU institutions, which we share, to centralise tax and budgetary powers? Why? And what does it all mean for the City? What are these new “macro-prudential” powers over banks that Brussels seems to want?
Next: competitiveness. The language is excellent. Tusk talks about lowering administrative burdens, cutting compliance costs and repealing unnecessary legislation. Very good. But we have heard this kind of thing for a while. How many laws has the EU actually repealed, what are they, and why should we believe that this process will accelerate? Why are we not insisting on a timetable for a real single market in services?
On sovereignty, it looks as though the Prime Minister has done better than many expected, in that EU leaders have apparently agreed that the phrase “ever-closer union” should no longer serve as a signpost for integration. That is potentially very important, since the European Court has often made use of the phrase in advancing its more aggressively federalist judgments. But how bankable is this? Will it be engraved in the treaties? Will the court be obliged to take account of this change, or will it be blown away – like Tony Blair’s evanescent opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights? How can we restore the force of that Lisbon opt-out, and stop the court making rulings on human rights? In asserting Parliament’s sovereignty, how can we construct something that will be truly intimidating both to the law-making activism of the commission and the judicial activism of the court? Are we talking bazooka or popgun?
Last, on borders, we seem to have accepted the mantra that “free movement” is an age-old inviolable principle of the EU. This is not quite so. Until recently it only applied to “workers” rather than all EU citizens. Why didn’t we try harder to recapture control of our borders, rather than stick at this minor (if worthwhile) change to the law on benefits? There may be a good explanation, but we need to hear it.
These are the questions I pose, humbly and respectfully. Let’s hope for some answers in the next fortnight.