On 24 March, Prime Minister David Cameron came to Brussels for an EU Council Meeting, but took the opportunity to visit Conservative MEPs. This is a rather novel experience for us – I at least have spent most of my parliamentary career with a Labour PM in office, so a visit from a Conservative PM is a welcome change.
We had a closed session where Cameron spoke for a few minutes, after which we MEPs were each able to put a question – although given the time constraints there was no real opportunity for follow-up points or debate.
I asked: “Prime Minister, you have been reported as saying that you did not want an EU In/Out referendum, because you believe that British membership of the EU is in Britain’s interests.Maybe my EastMidlands region is not typical, but I’d say that 90% of Conservatives in my region would disagree with you, and 80%would disagree strongly. Shouldn’t we listen to our members?”
Cameron has occasionally described himself as a eurosceptic, yet in reply he merely rehearsed the tired old arguments that Europhiles depend on. His answer would have been welcomed by Ken Clarke, or Nick Clegg, or Bill Newton Dunn.
As near as I can remember, he said “Britain is a trading nation.We can’t afford to be cut off and isolated.We can’t afford to be subject to European regulation that we have no part in shaping”.
My reply would be: “Yes, Britain is a great trading nation, so we can’t afford to be linked exclusively or preferentially to an over-regulated, over-borrowed, over-taxed economic area that is in long-term secular economic decline”. Cameron’s implicit assumption, that membership is important for trade, is just plain wrong, and a country like Switzerland (which does more trade per capita with the EU than we do) shows how wrong it is.
The EU has (or is negotiating) free trade deals with around sixty countries around the world. If we reclaimed our independence, it is inconceivable that we would not also negotiate a free trade deal with the rump EU.
We also trade with the USA (and many other countries). Yet no one imagines we need to be ruled fromWashington in order to trade with America.
Then there is the proposition, implicit in his reply, that outside the EU we should still be subject to EU regulation, but we should have no part in setting it – “regulation by fax”, as it’s derisively known. Now of course if you want to export anywhere – to the EU, to the USA, to China, wherever – you have to ensure that your product meets both the legislation and the consumer expectations of your target market. That’s a commonplace of international trade (in which I spent much of my career).
But that’s worlds away from accepting the crushing weight and cost of EU regulation within Britain on virtually every aspect of our polity – regulation which imposes costs far greater than any trade benefit we achieve from EU membership. And as an MEP for twelve years, I can tell the Prime Minister that his assumption that we in fact influence EU regulation is – how shall I put it – a little optimistic. Yes, we occasionally score small victories, but across huge swathes of regulation we have to grin and bear it.
By leaving the EU, far from having to continue to accept EU regulation, we should free ourselves from a huge and damaging economic and regulatory burden.
Again the US example is relevant. How many British businesses are agonising over the fact that US legislation is made in Washington, and that the UK has little or no say in it? How many businessmen are insisting that we should apply to join the USA, so as to have better market access and more influence on Capitol Hill? None. Yet this is the argument which the PM is making about Brussels.
In fact Cameron’s own experience with the EPP argues against him. When he boldly announced his intention to leave the EPP, and to form the ECR group, exactly the same arguments were made. Conservatives would be “isolated in Europe”. We should be “cut off from our natural centre-right allies”. Sarkozy andMerkel would snub him, and leave him without influence.
Yet exactly the opposite has been the case. As the UK’s PM, Cameron has immediate access to EU leaders. He is respected and fêted at European Council meetings. He has had conspicuous success in working with Sarkozy to set up the Libya intervention (however you may feel about the outcome).
The threats of isolation, or being cut off, are so much hot air. We can have most of the trade benefits of membership with almost none of the costs. The economic benefits of leaving the EU would be substantial, and would free us to be much more focussed on trade with more successful parts of the world. And as an independent voice in the councils of the world, Britain would get a better hearing than as a mere component of an EU which itself is failing to make much of a mark globally.
Cameron is wrong. As the eurozone unravels, it is clearer than ever that we should be Better Off Out.