The issues are simple. That is what the massing ranks of Eurosceptics say, whether in bar rooms, tearooms or TV studios. The British people must be allowed to decide whether to stay in the European Union, and soon, for two big reasons. First, because inside the EU we are not a fully sovereign democracy and might not be happy about that fact. And second, because in the only previous vote, in 1975, we were simply asked whether we wanted to be a member of a Common Market, so we were conned. We need another chance to vote on what the EU has really become.
During the next months, years, decades and probably centuries, those are the two big sticks with which the Out Party will beat us all over the head. Sovereignty and the 1975 con may even seem convincing. The only snag is that both arguments are tosh; bogus; utter stuff and nonsense. Sorry to mince words, but you know how easily people can be offended.
On a recent BBC Newsnight debate, Jeremy Paxman drew applause by popping up on a screen a photo of Herman Van Rompuy, the rather nondescript Belgian president of the European Council, and asking the audience whether they had voted for him and even knew who he was. Argument over: of course we’d rather not be bossed about by unelected officials whom we can’t even name.
Except for this. It was tosh. Why didn’t he also put up photos of the Secretary General of Nato, or the head of the World Trade Organisation, or the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Maritime Organisation, or even the head of Fifa? We didn’t vote for any of those either; they come from funny foreign countries and we don’t even know their names — except perhaps the President of Fifa.
Read Adam Smith, Eurosceptics
Yet all of them hold pieces of our sovereignty in their sweaty, unelected palms. Our elected representatives chose to hand over that power without even thinking about referendums. Membership of Nato obliges us to go to war if another country were to attack, say, Turkey. No ifs and buts: unless we are prepared to renege upon the founding treaty of Nato, we would then be at war, whether we like it or not. Makes the sacrifices that go with EU membership seem trivial.
Membership of the WTO restricts our ability to subsidise our industries or use tariffs to discourage imports. Membership of the UN, under a charter we helped to write ourselves, makes our own actions subject to international law. Membership of the International Maritime Organisation, along with the associated UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, regulates shipping and sets what are our “exclusive economic zones” around our coasts.
The point is that a crucial part of British policy since 1945 has been that of setting up, and joining, international organisations to agree upon common rules for various activities, to foster co-operation rather than conflict, to increase collective security, or to promote freer trade. All of them involve the pooling of sovereignty in exchange for an expected benefit — rather as the FA joined Fifa to play in international tournaments and to all follow the same rules of football. We could be independent and set our own rules. But it wouldn’t get us very far.
So, whatever the Eurosceptics, and especially UKIP, try to say, the debate about British membership of the EU cannot be reduced to a choice of black or white, shackled or free, servile or sovereign. Unless we want to pull out of all of these organisations, that is. It is a matter of degree, of shades of grey, of how much loss of sovereignty is too much, of much more boring issues of benefits and costs.
Which is where the Great Common Market Myth comes in. Here, the pro-EU brigade are often also at fault. When challenged about the 1975 referendum, they say that the antis didn’t pay proper attention, didn’t read the booklets properly, so it wasn’t a con. Yet that is the wrong answer. The right answer is that the 1975 vote was indeed about membership of a Common Market and that is what the vast bulk of the EU’s activities and directives are about. It is just that the antis don’t understand what a Common Market entails.
Read Adam Smith, Eurosceptics. For a market to work, he pointed out two centuries ago, it requires common, widely accepted rules, and a means of enforcement of those rules. You could make the rules just the rather basic ones of a free trade area, limiting the use of tariffs or obvious non-tariff barriers, but leaving businesses to have to abide by separate regulations in each national system in the area in order to sell in each country.
Pointless to have a vote soon
Or you can make them more profound, covering people as well as goods and services, protecting members against cartels as well as against tariffs, unifying regulations, dealing with non-tariff barriers and state subsidies, fake Scotch whisky and all the rest. That’s a real Common Market. It needs rules, officials to draft the rules, beastly inspectors and courts to enforce the rules. That is what the EU chiefly consists of — yes, including the ghastly Common Agricultural Policy, which is just a unified way to subsidise farmers.
Forget the “we need our sovereignty back” line. We won’t be sovereign even if we leave the EU. Throw the “I only wanted a Common Market” line in the bin. That’s what you got. All the real issues are about degree, not kind.
Which is why it would be especially pointless to have a vote soon, while the nature of the eurozone — a highly enhanced form of Common Market, but with a political flaw in its design — is so much in flux. All the degrees could change, dramatically. Or not.
Yet it is also why, when or if a vote does eventually take place, it is really going to be decided by whether people think it is worth bothering to leave the EU. It would be a once and for ever decision. Rather as for Scots voting for independence, there will be an emotional argument for leaving. But the question we ask is whether, the morning after that emotional moment, and on all subsequent mornings, the benefits that come from leaving are really large enough.
Is the extra degree of sovereignty regained enough to make it worthwhile? Is the then less Common Market still common enough? Is the loss of Britons’ automatic right to live and work in Spain, Italy, Germany or elsewhere a price worth paying?
The Times / NI Syndication