Even the cheapest, Poundland crystal ball will tell even a blind observer that Europe is pretty soon going to be a pretty hefty problem for almost all of Britain’s political parties. Almost all, I say, because that includes the SNP* whose europhilia is, in some respects, a product of a time that no longer exists.
Anyway, the odds of manifesto pledges promising an in-or-out referendum in the next parliament seem to be shortening all the time. I have no idea what this is supposed to achieve since, as best I understand the matter, neither the Conservative nor Labour parties wish Britain to leave the European Union. Asking the question necessarily increases the chances of receiving an answer you do not think sensible or in the national interest.
Still, the Better Off Outers do at least have an argument that makes some kind of sense. You may disagree with their conclusions but their logic is reasonable. Of course, as David Torrance notes, the anti-EU case is built upon similar foundations to the anti-UK argument made by the Scottish National Party. Consistency may be over-rated but being a hyper-Eurosceptic hyper-Unionist demands an impressive level of intellectual athleticism.
Be that as it may, those folk who think Britain should “renegotiate” its membership (how, precisely?) or, preferably, enjoy some kind of Norwegian-style relationship with Brussels are, in the end, not so very different from those Scottish nationalists who think Scotland can be independent without very much changing. In some senses this is correct. But just as an independent Scotland that remained part of the sterling zone would necessarily find itself relying upon the mercies of the Bank of England, so a Norwegian-style relationship with Brussels would necessarily require the United Kingdom to go along with a lot of what Brussels mandated without enjoying any say in what that mandate might be.
Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who co-authored a 911-page official report this year on Norway’s agreements with the EU, describes Norway as the most integrated EU outsider, and the U.K. as the least integrated insider.
Norway has, he says, incorporated about three-quarters of EU law onto its own books.
As a member of the European Economic Area—with Iceland and the microstate of Liechtenstein—Norway has access to the internal market in goods and services. It accepts EU employment law, and is a member of the Schengen passport-free travel zone, unlike the U.K. Norway is outside the EU customs union, which imposes extra costs when selling manufactured goods into the EU, and is not part of the expensive common agriculture and fisheries policies. Nonetheless, it has to pay in larger and larger sums to the EU to help the bloc’s poorer members—on the scale of EU member Finland.
Mr. Sverdrup says Norway has less and less say in formulating any of the rules and finds it increasingly difficult to get its voice heard in Brussels. “This is a very special model for hooking up to the EU: You participate in European integration without any representation,” he says.
Wouldn’t the UK be in a comparable position if it were to leave the EU? I should have thought so. Nor is it obvious that the rest of Europe would be happy to allow Britain to dictate the terms of its relationship with Brussels. Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Some Britons do believe in magical sovereignty-unicorns:
The Eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe argues the U.K. is less dependent on EU trade than other large European economies: Just 53.5% of British merchandise trade is with the rest of the EU, the smallest percentage except for Malta and Cyprus. It also points out that trade is just one aspect of a multi-faceted relationship with the EU, some of which, such as the common agricultural policy, are very expensive. Britain could take “a pick-and-mix approach,” opting in on policing laws, for example, while opting out of others, it says.
Oh really? What’s in it for the rest of the continent? If, as some say, we don’t need the EU, then why should we suppose they will believe that they need us? Can the Eurosceptics have it both ways? That is, can they claim it doesn’t matter if Britain is outside the EU because so much of our trade is with the rest of the world, while also insisting that British trade is so important to Europe that Brussels will do its utmost to give Britain the deal it seeks? I can’t help but feel that this must be an optimistic view.
Most negotiations require some measure of compromise. To achieve your goals you need to give up some of the things you presently hold precious. Yet to hear some people talk you could be forgiven for thinking the process will go something like this:
Britain: This is what we want. OK?
Europe: You crazy, crazy Britons. But, yes, you can have it all. Why ze hell not?
I wonder if this is just a little optimistic. If I were a German or a Frenchman or whatever else I’d also remember that I have a pretty hefty card to play myself:
There is no way, they say, other EU nations would tolerate a Switzerland the size of the U.K. on their doorstep.
If true, that could leave Britain trading with the bloc as a regular member of the World Trade Organization, subject to no preferential tariffs. Manufacturers, including the growing U.K. car industry, would face a 10% tariff on finished-goods exports to the EU, a cost that would detract from Britain’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment.
Harsh? Perhaps. But, however annoying the EU may be, we should at least try and be clear about what it is we would be leaving and mature enough to accept that doing so would hardly be a cost-free enterprise. (Just as the SNP should accept that leaving the UK can hardly be a cost-free enterprise either even if, in the longer-term, it might prove advantageous.)
So, yes, Dan Hannan and Alex Salmond have more in common than perhaps either man would care to acknowledge. That’s quite entertaining.
Still, as I say, the Better Off Outers have a respectable case (in both the EU and UK contexts). It’s the Renegotiators (again, perhaps, in both cases) who need to start saying precisely what they mean and what they can realistically achieve.
*I suspect Alex Salmond misses Neil McCormick’s advice. Whatever your own politics, the professor’s death robbed Scottish politics of an important and learned view.
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