Last week Lord Pearson of Rannoch proposed a bill in the Lords calling for an official cost/benefit analysis on the UK’s membership of the EU. Up jumped a Lib-Dem peer to tell us that the value of EU membership could not be measured in money, so the exercise was pointless. But surely we should at least know what all the other notional benefits are costing us?
So far as I know only one government, that of Switzerland, has done a formal cost-benefit analysis of EU membership, and their conclusion was overwhelming: they are Better Off Out. But our government spokesman in the Lords came up with a much more dangerous reply: if we were to leave the EU (he said, although no one in this debate was suggesting we should — merely asking for the numbers) then we should still have to obey EU rules, but we should have no influence in making them.
And it’s not just the government’s spokesman in the Lords. I have recently heard David Lidington, Frances Maude and David Cameron himself say the same thing. But the fact is, it’s just not true. It is, in fact, a lie.
Of course I do not accuse these distinguished Conservatives, least of all our Prime Minister, of deliberate falsehood and mendacity — how could I? But I do accuse them of reaching for a tired, lazy sound-bite which seems to justify their position, but which they would rapidly see, if they paused to get their brains into gear, is a palpable nonsense — and an insult to the intelligence of their interlocutors.
At one level, I know from a dozen years in the European parliament that we have precious little “influence” — certainly not enough to justify the £100 billion annual cost of membership. We score the occasional small victories, sometimes we knock off the worst rough edges from legislation, but over and over again we win the arguments and lose the votes, so that measure after measure is imposed on the UK over the protests of successive governments, and there is nothing at all that we can do about it.
But the really big lie (Goebbels would be proud of it) is the proposition that “outside the EU we should still be subject to EU rules”. They love to point to Norway and Switzerland, and it is true that these countries have accepted some EU rules (nothing like so many, nor so damaging, as we are forced to swallow). But these are small countries with limited negotiating powers. The UK is one of the world’s top ten economies, and there is no more reason that we should accept EU rules than that the USA, or China, or Japan should.
There is a limited sense in which we should still have to observe EU rules, but we must not let them confuse it with the present onerous regulatory régime. I spent thirty years in international trade, so I know something about it. If you want to export goods to another country — whisky to Korea; cars to America; fridges to France — you have to ensure that you meet local product regulations in your target market — and that you conform to consumer preferences in that market as well. But this is not a reason for joining the EU (or applying to join the USA, for that matter). It is simply a day-to-day commonplace of international trade.
Outside the EU, therefore, we should have to ensure that those fridges we want to sell to France, or jet engines to Germany, meet French, German and therefore EU rules, just as exports to the US must meet US rules. But we should be relieved of all the costly health & safety, employment and environmental rules that are bringing our economy to its knees. We could dump the Working Time Directive, the Temporary Workers Directive, the REACH directive, the EU renewables targets — and on and on. The savings for our economy would be colossal. (Before anyone complains, by the way, of course I know that we do indeed need rules in all these areas — the point is that EU rules are now so over-the-top that they are destroying jobs and prosperity, and standing in the way of economic recovery).
The EU already has, or is negotiating, free trade deals with some sixty or so countries around the world, so of course they would want one with us. But we wouldn’t need to negotiate an FTA with the EU, because we are already signatories of the EEA agreement. We would have an FTA from Day One (or Independence Day, as we should think of it).
Some in Europe think that on leaving the EU we should pay a fee for access to their single market. Why (they ask) should we get the benefit of their Single Market without paying towards the costs? I’d be happy to see the UK paying say £10 billion a year for access to the EU Single Market — provided that they in turn would make a similar payment, pro rata, for access to our market. And as we have a negative trade balance with the EU, perhaps we should expect them to pay us £15 billion against our £10 billion.
No one in Britain agonises because we’re not in the US Congress, to influence American legislation which affects us, or that we’re not in the Japanese Diet, to influence Japanese legislation that affects us. Why should we worry about being unable to affect EU regulation, when we’re not going to be subject to it?
The plain truth is, as I’ve said for years, we should be Better Off Out. And I think that the tide is beginning to turn on this question. Good luck to Lord Pearson and his cost/benefit analysis.