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21 February 2015

The Question of Europe

Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Foreign Affairs
For my fourth pre-election blog I want to return to the thorny question of Europe, or specifically the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union (EU). There can be no doubt that this is one of the major issues facing the electorate even though the Conservative party left it out of its list of priorities last month favouring such issues as housing and retirement. One reason why it is so important is the concern many citizens have about levels of immigration which I covered in my blog on the subject on 13th December 2014[i]. But I think the issues go wider than that given that the EU represents Britain’s largest trading partner but is stuck in a maelstrom of seemingly endless decline. In a recent ComRes poll 49% of people in the UK think that the EU should be either reformed and reduced in size or even abolished. By the way, 58% of people in France, 49% of people in the Netherlands and 46% of people in Germany also think this way. 78% of Britons think there should be greater controls on free movement or that it should be scrapped as do 65% of the French and 48% of Germans.

On the face of it the position of the respective larger parties seems clear, unlike on several other issues.  The Conservative party, which has long been divided over the question of membership,  seeks to lance the boil by offering the British public an in-out referendum in 2017 after apparently negotiating some reforms of the EU. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while reluctantly acknowledging there may be a need for reform of the EU, are not interested in a referendum. The United Kingdom Independence Party is largely a single interest party and wants an in-out referendum now. The Scottish Nationalist Party, which could well hold the balance of power come May 8th, wants to leave the UK but remain an independent member of the EU. Let’s look at each of these a little more closely.

The Conservatives recognise the concerns of many of its membership and of its back benchers and given the attitudes of about half the voters towards the EU are right to try to offer some way forward. The threat of UKIP is large. UKIP has proved that it can win widespread support in European Elections and UK by-elections. It now remains to be seen whether it can reproduce this form at a General Election but the Conservatives cannot assume that it won’t. However, their specific policy is nonsense. They say that if they win the General Election they will renegotiate terms of membership and then offer the British public a referendum in 2017 based on these new terms. That is simply not possible.

The Treaty on European Union (TEU) undertaken to integrate Europe was signed on 7th February 1992 by the members of the European Community in Maastricht, Netherlands and came into force in 1993. It has been amended by the treaties of Amsterdam (1997), Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2007). Each of these treaties took several years to negotiate and required the assent of all 28 member states. There is no possibility of achieving a further amendment in the timetable offered by the Conservatives. It might be possible for David Cameron to persuade Angela Merkel to say something that sounds plausible but it would have no force until all member states had ratified it. Therefore the Conservative party position is at best disingenuous, and more likely dishonest, in that it purports to offer something it cannot deliver.

The Labour party is at least clear in that it does not support a referendum at this time and in this respect, though probably only in this respect, can claim the support of a large proportion of the business constituency. Many businesses are pointing out the dangers of leaving the EU and at least the problems caused by the uncertainty a prospective referendum would bring. However, almost to a man, these are the same businesses that pointed out the dangers of not joining the euro and if the UK had joined the euro its economic problems would be many times worse than they are.

The Liberal Democrats are led by a Europhile of the first magnitude whose only proper job was negotiating the terms of entry for several Eastern European members. He is therefore one of the individuals responsible for some of the problems of the over-expanded EU. He will occasionally acknowledge that the EU may need reform but never specifies what this might look like or how it might be delivered. Regrettably the inadequate journalists who interview him never press him on this issue.

UKIP is very clear on this one issue, if very little else. It does not want to renegotiate terms of membership but wants to leave the EU. Where it is less clear is on how it would be done. I don’t know why as the position in law is quite clear. The Treaty of Lisbon introduced an exit clause for members who wish to withdraw from the EU. Under TEU Article 50 a Member State would notify the European Council of its intention to secede from the EU and a withdrawal agreement would be negotiated between the EU and the State. The treaties would cease to be applicable to that State from the date of the agreement or, failing that, within two years of the notification unless that State and the Council both agree to extend this period. The agreement is concluded on behalf of the EU by the Council and shall set out the arrangements for withdrawal, including a framework for the State’s future relationship with the EU. The arrangement is to be approved by the Council, acting by qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

This system gives a negotiated withdrawal although one must note it requires approval by both the European Council and the European Parliament. However, it does include a strong implication of a unilateral right to withdraw. This is through the fact that the State would decide “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements” and that the end of the treaties’ application in said State is not dependent on any agreement being reached (it would occur after two years regardless).

Those politicians who favour staying in the EU often refer to the numerous jobs that depend on our continued membership. A figure of 3 million is often used. This was derived from a very old piece of research used in the same debate over the euro and has never been updated to my knowledge. But it is misleading. It assumes that all our exports to the EU would cease on withdrawal, a simply stupid assertion. The negotiations might be complex, arduous and long but the EU will not want to cease trading with Britain. In any event the UK is a net importer with the EU.

What would be tricky is to avoid the trap that Switzerland and Norway have both fallen into. They enjoy free trade with the EU but on terms that mean they are subject to much of the same legislation and regulation as bind the member states. They even pay in to EU coffers on similar per capita terms to the UK.

As a member state of the EU the UK is not free to enter into its own free trade discussions with any other nation. Chile, a relatively small economy, enjoys free trade agreements with more countries than any other on earth, including the EU, the USA and China. If it can do it why cannot the UK?

And a last word on the most absurd of all the parties, the Scottish nationalists. Their position is to leave the UK but stay in the EU. This is not possible. If they leave the UK and become an independent nation the Scots would be obliged to apply for membership of the EU. They would have to go through the same procedures as countries like Serbia and Turkey are going through now. If successful they would be obliged to adopt the euro as their currency as the opt out negotiated by John Major in the Maastricht treaty is not available under the Lisbon Treaty which now applies.

It would seem in this as in many of the other issues facing the British electorate that the choice is to vote for the one telling the fewest lies.

[i] Immigration 13th December 2014
Copyright David C Pearson 2015 All rights reserved

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