Better together or better apart?

imageNever an easy answer! I suspect our stronger instinctive response is to want to be free of the big bureaucracy of Brussels. How very appealing is the nimbleness of a small country able to set it’s own rules and develop it’s own relationships.

Having been a Government lawyer and seen much badly drafted EU law and the difficulty of change in this big beast of an institution, I share some of the frustrations with the EU.

Some of us Greens are also more wedded to the local and the international – worried about fortress Europe that keeps out imports from poorer countries, gives a home to Poles and Spaniards rather than refugees from war-torn countries.

But what are the risks and what is the reality of the counterfactual? We need to understand what may really happen if the UK is to break loose from this regional bloc.

We have another powerful instinct too – to collaborate and work closely with others. We all recognise how hard it is, but this may be what we need to do.

For me, there are five easy reasons to stay and support a regional trade area:

  1. In our globalised world, many areas of law need to be regional or even global. Without the EU, the chances of a race to the bottom on standards is high. EU standards have been developed from product safety to energy labelling, and investments made in urban-industrial infrastructure including waste water treatment and pollution control from factories driven by EU law. With all member states obliged to address these issues, we don’t have to worry about those extra costs creating a competitive disadvantage regionally.
  2. By operating as a global bloc on environmental and human rights issues, the EU has more clout and strength. Just look at the UK’s recent forays into China, and climb-downs on human rights issues. By having a joint position on Climate Change, I suspect the EU has also helped shift the centre ground.
  3. The UK depends on the EU for a large proportion of its exports (about 50%). If it were to leave the EU but seek to be part of the common market, it has two entirely unsatisfactory options:
    • a Norway solution where it accepts all EU law plus freedom of movement of capital, people, establishment plus payment of funds, but without taking part in drafting the law or rules on spending money, or
    • negotiating an EFTA-type deal like Switzerland for which it may need to make similar compromises.

If the UK goes its own way, operating by WTO rules, it will face tariffs and non-tariff barriers from the EU. To take the example of vehicles, considering the large investments in car manufacturing in the UK, imports from Canada are subject to tariffs in the region of 10%.  Do we want to take the risk of relocation with the hope that we will be able to negotiate better trade deals with countries outside the EU? And maybe our trade deals will be worse considering the smaller market on offer.

4.   Interaction and exposure to the EU helps create, in my view, a more dynamic UK economy – it allows the UK to benchmark itself, and learn from others and to make use of a wider market for innovative products. Sitting here in Hong Kong, the disadvantages to business of a small market in terms of innovation is apparent, as is the lack of interaction with others. I am not convinced that being alone, seemingly free and nimble, supports dynamism in business or in social and cultural policy and activity.

5.  On the international stage, the EU supported by the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights, which accession countries have had to sign up to, has helped entrench the values of social democracy. At home, the EU has taken important steps in protecting the rights of women in the workplace, and non-discrimination in the workplace and other fields. And abroad, the EU is seen as a voice in favour of democracy and human rights. How much weaker would EU states be if all operated on their own? We already see this weakness when the UK strikes out on its own – its relationship with Saudi or China.

What of those downsides – the big bureaucracy, a juggernaut on a course that’s hard to alter, law made behind closed doors in Brussels, money doled out in structural funds for unnecessary projects, subsidies to farmers and not urban dwellers, and operating a common market at the expense of poorer countries? Of course, the EU is not perfect – far from it. But nor is national government – it is also also open to capture by vested interests and in my view is more short-termist and populist than the more technocratic EU Commission.

Improvement is needed to make the EU what it should be. But before you veer towards Out, we are moving in that direction. My 5 points on this change and further change needed are:

  • The principle of subsidiarity is accepted but it needs to be developed and refined. In my view, EU law has become less prescriptive in recent years. The bigger problem may be the UK’s focus on defeating proposals for new EU law, rather than seeking to design the law or make what it can make of a regional bloc and regional regulations. Where there is flexibility, and there is plenty, the UK could use it rather than tie its hands to its no gold-plating position.
  • The law is not made behind closed doors – there is an elected Parliament which is now more powerful, and our Government like all others sits in the Council and has its appointments to the Commission. The public and NGOs have to raise their game in influencing it, getting to know their MEPs better, how the European Parliament works, and feed into Government consultations on EU law.
  • The criteria and priorities for structural funds need reviewing and perhaps less money should be allocated this way.
  • A long hard discussion is needed about the taboo subjects: freedom of movement, freedom of establishment and agricultural policy too.  Sadly, it may be the current refugee crisis that prompts a review of freedom of moment.
  • No assumptions should be made about the benefits of continuing to expand the EU or continuing to push to open markets further. There may be an optimum size and we may have reached it. There may also not be good reasons for forcing open the market for services – that also needs consideration.

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