Now we need clarity from Eurosceptics

21.09.15 Publication:

The UK’s new opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn hasnow 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, don’t 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.


Don’t 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 Britain’s 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. Germany’s
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 EU’s 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 “European
Economic Area” members also abide by EU rules on freedom of movement of people
and are even part of the Schengen passport-free zone.

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 Party’s claim that 75 per cent
of Britain’s 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.