Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Now we need clarity from Eurosceptics
Financial Times - September 21,2015

The UKís new opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has now clarified, in the FT no less , his view of British membership of the EU. David Cameron is unlikely to do so until the fog clears on his negotiations with the 27 other EU member states, and until the refugee crisis ceases to hog the headlines. It is time, though, for one other important group to clarify their position: the eurosceptics.

 

Surely we know what they want? They want Britain to leave, donít they? Well, yes, but that leaves some crucial questions unanswered: what do they want to happen then? What kind of relationship do they want Britain to have with the EU once it has left? And what kind of Britain do they want, outside the Union?


In fact, if Britain does vote to leave, what will then happen is a real negotiation, probably lasting two years or more, over the terms of departure and the future relationship. This presumably will happen under a new Conservative prime minister, since assuming that Mr Cameron campaigns for Britain to remain in, he would no doubt have to resign if he loses. Most likely, that new Tory leader would come from the eurosceptic camp.

 

Listening to a senior Tory eurosceptic talk to a group of Japanese businessmen recently about what would happen on a Brexit, it became evident that at the heart of much eurosceptic thinking there is a huge incoherence, a contradiction or perhaps a source of division that is being papered over. It concerns sovereignty and the single market.

 

Donít worry, said the senior Tory to his Japanese audience: if Britain leaves, as he hoped it would, it would not affect our access to the European single market that is so precious to foreign investors like you. The UK would have great bargaining power because it runs a big trade deficit with the rest of the EU, he said, so the others are hardly going to cut us off since it would hurt their exports more. And anyway other outsiders, such as Norway,  have access to the single market without being EU members, so we could, too.

 

This last point is of course true. Britain could negotiate to remain part of the European single market of which Margaret Thatcher was one of the progenitors. The trade deficit bit of his argument is economically illiterate: the size of Britainís economy does give it clout, but that clout would not be diminished one jot if we happened to be running a trade surplus rather than a deficit, which is a macroeconomic outcome. Germanyís clout is not, after all, weakened by its trade surplus. 

 

Most likely, this focus on trade balances dates back to the days when tariffs were what counted. Between developed countries, however, regulations are what now matter, which is why the EUís talks with the US over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are all about agreeing on common regulations for trade and markets, not about tariffs. Which brings us back to the single market.

 

I am not sure what my particular senior Tory eurosceptic thinks about the importance of sovereignty in the European debate. But any eurosceptics who do believe that Britain needs to leave the EU in order to restore its ability to govern itself, to reclaim parliamentary sovereignty, need to clarify their position on the single market. For membership of it, whether now or Norway-style after leaving the EU, is arguably the greatest infringement of sovereignty that the EU causes. By the way, Norway and other ďEuropean Economic AreaĒ members also abide by EU rules on freedom of movement of people and are even part of the Schengen passport-free zone.


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To retain access to the single market as an outsider entails an obligation to implement in your national laws and regulations every new or amended regulation made in the EU governing goods and (so far only some) services. Such common rules are what makes the single market single, and they are changing all the time as circumstances and products change too. They are the basis of the UK Independence Partyís claim that 75 per cent of Britainís laws are made in Brussels, fictitious though that particular statistic has been shown to be by House of Commons research.

 

Hence the need for clarification. A eurosceptic can stand for the restoration of sovereignty. Or he or she can stand for leaving the EU while remaining in the single market. But they cannot logically and coherently stand for both, unless the restored sovereignty they want is pretty nugatory. Indeed, if Britain stays in the single market after leaving it will have less sovereignty than before in this field, since it will have lost all its current means to influence what the regulations are.

 

Until the various groups of eurosceptics clarify where each of them stands on this point, no one will be able to tell what kind of Britain they want after a vote to leave. Nor, indeed, will anyone be able to tell whether they have really thought through the logic of their own positions.




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