An uncommitted reader of the British press would rapidly conclude that, on the issue of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, there is an easily-drawn dividing line. Those who favour withdrawal are on the right in political terms; those who would retain membership are on the left.
Readers of the centre-left or liberal press would go further; coverage of the issue would suggest that the supporters of Brexit are not only right-wing, but ignorant, prejudiced, xenophobic, or just plain deranged. The possibility that there is a perfectly rational and moderate case for reconsidering our future in Europe, a case that is not only consistent with a left-of-centre stance, but actually required by it, is overlooked. The debate is all the poorer for it.
My own involvement with this issue goes back a long way. A s a new recruit to the Foreign Office in 1964, I worked on Common Market issues and later, from our Brussels embassy, I helped to organise the Wilson-Brown tour of Common Market capitals as part of a further attempt to have the Gaullist veto on our membership lifted.
By the time I returned to the UK in 1968, I was clear that the issue was not whether we should or could be part of Europe, since no one could doubt that we were historically, geographically, culturally, politically, and inevitably, an integral part of that entity, however defined. The question was not whether, but what kind of Europe?
I came to the realisation that what we were offered was not ” Europe” but a Franco-German deal guaranteeing free trade in manufactures to the Germans in return for subsidised agriculture to suit the French.
Joining “Europe” in 1972 represented for Britain a restriction of our trading opportunities and an abandonment of a rational and long-established trading pattern. It meant, through the Common Agricultural Policy, to whose costs Britain was and remains a major contributor, a substantial increase in food prices and therefore in domestic costs, making British manufactured goods more expensive. It also meant an end to preferential markets beyond Europe, and opened us up instead to direct competition from more efficient manufacturing rivals in a single European marketplace.
But have we not derived great advantage from our trade with the EU? Well, hardly. Let us put to one side the very large annual contribution we pay to the EU (a continuing burden, as it happens, on our balance of payments). We have now run a trade deficit every year since 1982, which was just as the full impact of EU membership took effect – not just a coincidence, since the greater part of that deficit is with the other members of the EU, and much of it arises in the trade in manufactured goods.
The result is that our manufacturing sector has shrivelled away, and our net investment in new manufacturing capacity is virtually nil. W e are of course solemnly warned that our EU partners will refuse to trade with us if we insist on a different and better Europe; but are they really going to turn their backs on a one-sided trade relationship that has been so much to their advantage?
The weakness of the case for continuing membership of the current arrangement is shown by the fact that it is almost always articulated in terms of rival pessimisms; we are constantly told that the burdens of membership are outweighed by the risks of being left out in the cold.
But we should take courage from the lessons of experience. Similar arguments led us to join the European Monetary System, which proved disastrous, and were then repeated in respect of the euro. Most people in Britain will offer daily thanks that we had the courage to reject those arguments and to stay out of the euro, and there is no reason to suppose that they have any greater weight in the current debate. Our trading partners in Europe need us at least as much as we are said to need them, as post-Brexit negotiations would surely demonstrate.
In any case, a decision in favour of Brexit would not mean, as is so often alleged, turning our backs on Europe. It would signal instead the opening of a new agenda, aimed at developing a better and more constructive Europe, and one with a greater chance of success.
A new Europe would not operate, as it has done since its inception, as a manifestation of free-market capitalism, serving the interests of big business rather than those of ordinary people. It would not impose a policy of austerity in thrall to neo-classical economic doctrine. It would not run a hugely diverse economy in terms of a monetary policy that suits Germany but no one else. It would not impose a political structure decided by a small elite, but would allow the pace of cooperation and eventually integration to be decided by the people of Europe as they and we became more comfortable with the concept of a European identity.
If we have the courage, we could, in other words, not only benefit ourselves but help the development of a Europe that truly does serve the people of Europe. That is surely a project to attract even the most enlightened of bien pensants.Tags: Europe
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This post was written by Bryan Gould