It‘s been five years since we began our blog in the run-up to the UK referendum on whether to remain a member of the EU. This post marks the occasion. Strictly, a ‘quinquennial’ post would occur every five years but we don’t plan to keep “banging on about Europe“.
Prime Minister David Cameron, fed up with the squabbles over the European Union among his Conservative MPs, wanted to stop them “banging on about Europe” and focus on other important issues. At an EU Council meeting  he attempted to persuade fellow leaders to allow the UK yet more opt outs from its laws and regulations so he could call a referendum and let the people decide. Having failed to get the cooperation he needed from the Council  voters decided they’d had enough. MPs on the other hand continued squabbling for another four years until finally the matter was settled by a General Election that gave a clear majority in Parliament for leaving the Union. We left.
We left, but many are still banging on about why we should have stayed. Mainly their arguments concern the damaging effects on our economy and, obviously, leaving a free trade area accounting for more of our trade than any other single trading partner is bound to have negative consequences. Whether the consequences will be outweighed by freedom to develop new relationships with other markets is uncertain but so too is the growth and cohesion of the Single Market/Customs Union.
Germany has been the economic success story of the EU but much of this has been at the expense of other members, with an imbalance of trade which is illegal under the Treaties but remains unpunished. Meanwhile europhiles in the UK believe that membership of the Union has been beneficial for us too, despite the enormous trade deficit. Over the last three to four decades we have out-performed the EU’s average growth. It is notable that the share of UK trade with the Single Market has shrunk considerably over that period with more dynamic regions of the world providing new opportunities. Whilst neither case can be proven since there is no counterfactual, this may account for the difference and indicate a still brighter path ahead.
Given the relative poverty of some member nations, such as Bulgaria, the EU has a lot more headroom for growth than the US but manages far less, probably because it is a lumbering, bureaucratic, over-regulated coalition. Getting agreement by all states may also be part of the reason but ever greater centralisation (“more Europe“) doesn’t necessarily lead to quicker, better decision making. This was clear from the vaccine shambles. But the eurozone’s growth was even worse than the EU average (see graph below), perhaps because the centralisation of monetary policy by the ECB (and, effectively, of fiscal policy for Greece and some other states during the bailouts after the financial crisis) could have been handled better by the individual states, had they been left to make their own choices in their own best interests.
But the EU is far more than an economic project, the success of which, so far, can be argued, as can its benefit to the UK specifically. Above everything else the EU has always been a political project with the ultimate goal of creating a European state and this is predicated on the idea that it will therefore be at peace with itself. This is plainly wrong as any history of civil wars will prove. Can the EU survive the very evident tensions within it, from vaccines to crippling recessions in many states?
It is probably the conviction that union among European nations must be a good thing that drives a vocal minority to object strongly to leaving the EU or to nag us into rejoining. Some have since been dissuaded by the hostile actions of the Commission, encouraged by national leaders like Macron and Merkel.
Let’s just consider recent EU behaviour. On the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine they have said: it’s ineffective for the over 65s; it’s dangerous for the under 55s; the UK is refusing to export supplies to the EU; we will block exports to the UK; there is more room in our fridges for vials we urgently need but won’t be using for a while, if ever. They even threatened a hard border in Ireland to stop ‘illegal’ vaccine exports before realising what the rest of the world would think about that.
In the name of peace and of protecting the Good Friday Agreement the EU ruthlessly used the Irish border as a negotiating tool—there must be no hard border. This they were prepared to reverse, albeit briefly, but they have used the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to ensure the UK/Northern Ireland border was unnecessarily hard, causing shortages in the province and the eruption of inter-community violence. For the EU words are cheap and principles (“values” in EU-speak) can be ignored if they do not serve the political ideology – the vaccine and border issues demonstrate that citizens’ lives matter much less.
Successive votes have showed a hardening of UK sentiment against the EU: the 2016 Referendum, the 2017 EU Parliament elections, the 2019 UK General Election. These recent EU actions are hardly likely to have reversed the trend.
We believe in a Europe united in the goals of peace, prosperity, cooperation in science, protection of the environment, cultural and educational exchange and the extension of these things to other countries in other continents that honestly share the same ambitions. We question the success and sincerity of the European Union, as it now exists, in pursuing these objectives. Of course there are many EU projects concerned with such things but they don’t require the political superstructure or super-state ambition. Europeans should look again at the arrangements put in place by the Council of Europe which have been overshadowed and undermined by the later upstart, the EU, which focused away from the list onto another objective, Ever Closer Union, while keeping the rest largely as tokens.
Five years and well over 500 posts! We expected to continue for maybe six months—to the Referendum and a bit beyond perhaps.
Instead the process of leaving the Union dragged on endlessly, and so have the arguments. We felt obliged to respond to what we believe are the false claims made by the Commission and others, but most especially by fellow Britons who we think have been misled by them.
We doubt that the UK Government—or any likely, future administration—will make the most of the opportunities that Brexit affords but we hope and expect the outcome will be positive over time. Industries such as agriscience, biotech, fintech and IT represent special strengths of our country that have been impeded by excessive caution and regulation under EU control; from genetic engineering to general data protection regulations or artificial intelligence to vaccines, the Union seems determined to stay in the slow lane. We cannot afford to be too constrained by the ‘precautionary principle’ or the pleading of well-ensconced interests. There is little point in only nominal freedom.
In future we will write only in response to significant events—for example, if another state drops out.
**”Following intense negotiations, EU leaders achieved a deal which strengthens Britain’s special status in the EU. It is a legally binding and irreversible decision by all 28 leaders. The settlement addresses all of Prime Minister Cameron’s concerns without compromising EU fundamental values.”