IN or out? That’s the question currently dominating the British political scene. When David Cameron finally made his long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union, his Europhobic backbenchers were delighted. The demand for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has continued to grow over the years. But now, in the wake of the recession and the mounting economic crisis, this has become an issue that the government can no longer ignore.
Brussels, the headquarters of the EU, has long been viewed in Britain as a bureaucratic monster that has grown out of control. With its unending red tape and its armies of highly paid civil servants, it has become a symbol of everything wrong about the EU. Interfering in everything from nationally enacted laws to the way consumer goods are packaged, it has made a majority of Brits to now say “Enough”!
According to a recent opinion poll, 56 per cent of people across the political spectrum want Britain to leave the Union. More revealingly, 45 per cent of those surveyed see it as something bad, while only 28 per cent view it as a source of good. Although these figures might change as the referendum, scheduled for 2017, approaches, it is clear that a significant majority of Brits are currently fed up with the EU.
Polling figures also reveal that, as might be expected, support for an exit is highest among the Tories, and lowest among the Liberal Democrats. With the Labour leadership is largely pro-EU, should they win the next general elections due in 2015 — and the polls put them ahead of the Conservatives — the Labour government will do its best to sway public opinion.
Cameron has promised that until the referendum, he will try to renegotiate the terms of British membership. As it is, Margaret Thatcher managed to squeeze major financial concessions from the EU when she negotiated British entry. Now, European attitudes are hardening towards a dodgy partner who’s constantly arguing for special treatment. By staying out of the euro, Britain signalled its lack of confidence in the whole system.
However, as opting out has become a popular goal, the business community is feeling very jittery about the prospects of a British exit. The reality is that whatever the Europhobic rhetoric in the country, membership has been very good for business. Manufacturers have had a huge market to export to, and the financial sector has benefited from London’s position as a global banking hub.
Since the referendum is four years away, there are very real fears that foreign investors will shy away from establishing factories or banks in a country whose economic future is tied to a reference to the people in 2017. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, M. Schmieding wrote:
“If Britain presses its demands too far and ends up outside the EU, Brussels might grant the UK no more than selective access to the continental market, on terms set by the EU. That would be to the UK’s great detriment. But does anybody really believe that Paris or Frankfurt would allow London to remain the offshore financial hub of the euro zone after an acrimonious British exit from the EU?”
The WS Journal article concludes with this advice: “Britons who clamour for independence from their major market may have to think hard about whether they really want to risk ending up in a diminished Little England with increasing public debt, rising inflationary pressures and little clout on the global scene.”
Given the clear economic advantages to staying in the EU, why are so many Brits determined to quit? Much of the current disenchantment with the EU is linked to immigration: after Poland was admitted, tens of thousands of Poles poured into the UK; now, over half a million have migrated, making Polish the second most used language in Britain after English. In a few weeks, the early freeze on migrants from Bulgaria and Rumania is set to end, raising the prospect of a further flood of East European immigrants.
Although citizens of member states can travel and work anywhere in the EU, Britain is the destination of choice with its English-language state education, its free medical care and its generous welfare system. When Tony Blair was recently given a Polish award for opening his country’s doors to its people, I’m sure there was some embarrassment in the Labour Party. Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, has admitted that his party’s policies on EU immigration were wrong.
Another irritant is the perceived interference of the European Court of Justice in cases that have been decided by British courts. Under EU rules, any individual or institution can bring a case that has not been settled in uniformity with EU laws before the ECJ. Thus, many human rights cases that had been won by the Crown have been referred to the ECJ, and the decisions overruled.
Petty rules issued by the EU secretariat that relate to small businesses are seen as bureaucratic interference that raises costs. But as 170,000 people work for the EU in different areas, a proliferation of rules is inevitable.
However, in a period of recession and austerity, the recent EU budget proposals for 864 billion euros over the next five years has run into stiff opposition. The UK, together with several other member states, has demanded a reduction of 100 billion euros. One round of negotiations has already collapsed, and it’s not going to be easy to convince British tax payers that they must support an increase in the EU budget in these tough times.
But at the end of the day, while the British may use the ongoing debate as a means to express their frustration with a system they see as being in a mess, they are probably too pragmatic to walk out on a whim. Now that they are in, leaving may prove to be a very difficult option.