Lock all the doors, cover over the windows, close all entry points! The hoards of immigrants are coming and they are armed with EU regulations to destroy life as we know it!”
I accept that this caricature of the anti-Europe lobby in the UK is a touch on the extreme side, but I don’t think anyone reading this piece would be shocked to see some approximation appearing as the editorial in either the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. The entire debate around the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union has been brought down to the most base of arguments by several right wing commentators. Not for the first time they wish to paint it as an ‘us versus them’ argument, and how poor old Britain once again stands alone against the continent. They speak of Nigel Farage being “Churchillian” in his attempts to wrestle back UK sovereignty from those dastardly foreigners.
For the most part there is a high level of arrogance amongst those who wish to see the UK leave the European Union immediately. They point out that the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget to the tune of 11 billion pounds, making them one of the largest contributors. The United Kingdom has to put up with countless EU regulations and directives that erode the British right to make their own lives and retain a sense of ‘Britishness’. While poor old British people are working hard to pay their EU paymasters, the French and Germans are in cahoots with one another, devising other ways to subjugate the UK even further. If the UK were to leave, it could just negotiate a special trade agreement with the EU, similar to the current arrangements with Norway and Switzerland; all of the benefits with none of the pain. These are the main arguments put forward not only by Maxton Milner in his article for the last issue of TN, but also by UKIP, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and a large section of the Tory party.
It is intrinsic to the future prosperity of the UK that it remains in the European Union, not just economically but also socially. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that up to 4 million jobs are attached to the UK’s membership of the EU. Osborne practically portrays himself as Christ reborn when unemployment falls, but would he take the blame for putting millions of jobs at risk? The much praised and revered ‘City of London’ is the shining light of the UK economy according to many right wing commentators. If so, how can they justify putting it in jeopardy by pulling out of the EU? I can guarantee you right now that the UK government could lower as many taxes as it wants (and seems hell-bent on doing so at the moment), but those financial institutions will think twice about staying in the City if they suddenly face trading barriers to the huge European market.
The UK under this government has rebalanced to become an open economy almost exclusively interested in developing the service industry even further. The companies that are currently forming the economic revival of the country will need unimpeded access to the European market if they want to continue their growth. No one with a basic grasp of economics would think it wise to economics cultivate a service sector economy and then cut off opportunities for further growth. It would be economic madness to isolate the United Kingdom at a time when the economy is only recovering. In a world where even China recognizes the need to cooperate with those around them, the UK cannot afford to become introverted.
This brings me onto the one particular argument of the anti-EU lobby in the UK that really annoys me: that even after the country has withdrawn from the trading bloc, it will continue to have access to the free market. This attitude of “they needs us more than we need them” is rooted firmly in a mindset which would be more at home in early part of the last century. Britannia no longer rules the waves and cannot keep developing foreign policy as if this is the case. The EU would be well within its rights to place some pretty stringent barriers to UK participation in the free market were it to leave. The difference in context between the UK and Norway for example is that Norway has always been clear in not wanting to participate in the European project. There is a difference in negotiating with someone who has been clear in their objectives from day one, and negotiating with someone who has pulled out and wants to ‘wipe the slate clean’. Future trade agreements are not a cut and dry issue as they are being presented by the anti-EU lobby. To plunge Britain into such a precarious position would be potentially disastrous.
There is a final important point to be made about the social aspect of remaining in the EU. Speaking as someone who identifies as British, I would worry for my country if it sees Liam Fox and Nigel Farage as defenders of the British interest. They are certainly not the figures I would use to represent the British culture that I would identify with. It is about time that we stood up and questioned this right wing fear mongering. They tell us that the UK contribution makes austerity worse, without questioning the crippling austerity itself. They tell us that immigrants are the problem, or the EU is the problem, or both. I say the problem in the UK at the moment is that divide and conquer politics is back again with this “skivers versus scroungers” or “natural British versus immigrants” rubbish. I’m glad that the UK is signed up to the EU. The EU safeguards workers’ rights from Tory attacks, and provides an additional barrier against miscarriages of justice in the form of the European Court of Human Rights.
In summary, I should say that the European Union is by no means perfect but far from it. What I want to see is a proactive Britain that is working on the inside to bring more transparency and democracy to the way it works. What I fear is a Britain that leaves the EU, becomes inward looking and hands the keys of the country to Farage and the Daily Mail.