Britain’s now forty-four year membership of the EU has brought with it many advantages. It has had a substantial hand in underpinning the prosperity the UK has generally seen since we joined. It has brought many advantages and protections to its citizens such as protecting workers rights through agreements that limit the hours people can work, provide protection in the workplace and enshrine the right to maternity leave in law.
It has been of immense benefit to environmental regulation and actions in the UK, with joint working on protection for a European environment where issues with pollution and climate change don’t respect national boundaries. And for those with longer memories about Europe’s history of bloody internal conflict, it has brought not only peace and security to much of a continent, but promoted countries positively working together for the good of that continent as well.
So I find it very difficult in the EU debate to give full and equal weight to the arguments and counter-arguments swirling around as we approach the in/out referendum, which, let’s be clear, would result in an irrevocable exit from the EU, and Britain standing alone in the world, supported by whatever number of individual trade deals we could cobble together after exit had been completed.
When we look at the fact that 44% of UK trade is with the EU and is supported by current access without tariffs to a single market of 500 million people, it is difficult to imagine that exit could result in anything less than a prolonged period of economic chaos, uncertainty and a probable long term loss of GDP.
At the very best, exit might be followed by extraordinary generosity on the part of the club we had just left, who might just admit the UK back to some of the advantages in the single market and other deals that we have benefitted from in our years of membership. But even then, it is not conceivable that this would be done without requiring the UK to adhere to the rules of the single market as well: in which case we would have achieved – what? Having to impose rules on our economy without any participation in drawing up those rules? Don’t we want a seat at the table?
The argument for leaving seems to be that: yes we might have a diminished and insecure economy, but at least we’d be able to make all our own laws. We’d be a truly ‘sovereign’ state again. But even then we have to look at the reality of our supposed ‘loss’ of sovereignty in the EU.
Most of Britain’s laws are not affected by areas of claimed EU competence. The minority that are within EU remit are subject to general directives which the U.K play a strong role in shaping and which give the final options about how to place the general guidance into law into the hands of individual member states. Many of these areas are about issues we might well want to have some common and supportive joint approaches on – like environmental matters, counter-terrorism measures, joint negotiations with international bodies and suchlike. The bottom line is what weight might be given to a theoretical full ‘sovereignty’ against a host of other advantages that come our way from pooling a little of it for good common purposes, and about which we have strong negotiating arrangements.
This is indeed perhaps an area in which the EU does need some further reform, to ensure that joint decisions really do take account of the circumstances of all member states, but it is not a ‘take-bat- home’ issue: it is something that can be sorted out better by being around the table to do it. To cast ourselves permanently away from that table and throw everything else away in the process because we’re a bit unhappy about some of the ways some practices in the EU currently work would be a grievous and self-inflicted wound on our future as a European nation.