THE stance adopted by some Conservative Party members over UK membership of Europe borders on the insane, writes Allan Massie
The only real British issue with the EU is control of our borders, and even this is a bit of a red herring – for all the evidence suggests that nationals of other EU states who come here come to work, not to collect social security benefits. Given that these are less generous in the UK than in several other member states, any benefit-seekers would be fools to opt for Britain. Nevertheless in much of England, immigration, whether from other European countries or elsewhere, is a matter of concern, and that concern is real, no matter whether one may think that on balance immigration is beneficial rather than harmful. Opinion polls suggest that immigration matters more to Ukip voters than the EU itself.
Most of the other objections to the EU which so agitate the Tories and which have led even Cabinet ministers, in defiance of their leader and party policy, to call for us to leave the EU, are either exaggerated or misinterpreted. The financial cost of the EU is in relative terms tiny. The EU budget for 27 countries is much smaller than the budgets of the larger British government departments. It’s a little more than the total of public spending in Scotland.
As for the complaint that EU regulation stifles British business, one must, even while admitting that some of the regulation is silly and some unnecessary, ask why it is supposed that the UK is uniquely handicapped since the regulations apply to all EU states. I don’t often find myself in agreement with the mayor of London, but in a column in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, he asked what is surely an important question. “Why,” he wrote, “are we still, person for person, so much less productive than the Germans? That is a question now more than a century old, and the answer has nothing to do with the EU.”
Boris Johnson does actually put forward one good reason for leaving the EU: that this would force us “to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by ‘Bwussels’ but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.” To the extent that “Brussels” has served as an easy excuse for our own failures, he is surely right, though some of us are old enough to remember that it was our awareness of our own shortcomings that persuaded politicians that entry to what was then the European Economic Community was not only desirable, but necessary.
David Cameron is now in a near impossible position. He seeks renegotiation of the terms of our membership. To the extent that, having chosen not to be a member of the eurozone, we are already outside the European mainstream, there is a case for a new treaty that would recognize this reality, and formalise a new Union with an inner and outer ring. It is clear that we can’t be “at the heart of Europe”, and that indeed we have already chosen not to be there. Nevertheless, formalising a new, more distant relationship cannot be easy There is no compelling reason why we would be better off, and there are reasons to think we might be worse off, business having to comply with regulations and standards over the setting of which we had less influence than we do now.
The sad truth is however that a great section of the Tory party is now utterly irrational on the question of Europe. The anti-EU Tories have no interest in arguments about the pros and cons of membership, and are therefore incapable of being persuaded. Tell them, for instance, that the EU is better equipped to make trade deals with the US and China than the UK alone would be, and they don’t care. Tell them that foreign investment here is predicated on achieving entry to a large European market, and would fall away if we didn’t have automatic entry to that market, and they don’t care. They deny what is obvious. This is evidence of mental deficiency.
At the moment it is easy for people to think that the problems of the eurozone offer a good argument for leaving the EU. But how will things look if these are surmounted – as has always been probable? How will things look when the eurozone returns to prosperity and growth resumes? And how will things look if we do leave, as so many Tories wish us to leave, and we still find ourselves unable to address the list of our own problems?
My own guess is that David Cameron will get some of what he wants in his re-negotiation and that he will do so because, remarkable as it may seem, most European states want Britain to remain in the EU. He will then put it to the country in a referendum – if, that is, he is in a position to do so after the next general election. But a great part of his party will not be satisfied, and will campaign and vote against him.
I think their wits have gone wandering. The Tory Party used to be known as the stupid party, which was unfair. It was dull only because it regarded politics, in Rab Butler’s phrase, as “the art of the possible”. Now, however, it seems to be in danger of deserving that old description. Anyone who thinks that all our problems would be solved by leaving the EU is living in cloud-cuckoo land.
The EU will survive and flourish, because it recognises the reality that Europeans are better together, acting in concert, and settling disagreements by discussion and compromise. It has been the greatest political creation of my lifetime because it has transformed the way Europeans do business together and reconcile their differences. It will survive and flourish whether the UK is a member or not. Whether we would flourish outside the Union is more doubtful. We joined it because we recognized we were doing badly outside it. Tories are supposed to have long memories and to take the long view. Too many now have forgotten this. If we are not part of a united Europe, then, inevitably and without malevolence, Europe will be united against us. The onlooker may see most of the game but he can’t shape what happens on the field.