Confusion reigns at the FCO

Conservative Party members often write to Europe Minister David Lidington, or to William Hague, or the Prime Minister, to express their concern about our continued membership of the EU.  They are often taken aback by the almost surreally naïve responses that they get, and now and again they send the replies on to me, sometimes covered in red ink and exclamation marks.

Of course I know how difficult it is to get sensible replies from government ministers, hedged around as they are by all the pressures of office, and of Coalition, and the need to avoid saying anything that may be taken down and used in evidence against them.  So I should not have taken the issue up with David Lidington.  It was self-indulgent of me.  But today, on the last day of the year, I got David Lidington’s reply (it was dated Dec 13th, but what with Christmas holidays and so on I only got it today).

I also know exactly what the government’s (and the Party’s) position is on the oft-repeated quote about “3½ million British jobs depend on the EU”, which is always used by Europhiles to mean “3½ million British jobs depend on our membership of the EU”.  So I shouldn’t be surprised.  But to see it written down in black and white, on FCO letterhead, over a Conservative Minister’s signature, really hit me between the eyes.

I think that David Lidington understands the verbal sleight-of-hand involved, because he carefully says “3½ million jobs are linked to our membership of the EU” (my italics).  In fact of course even that isn’t strictly true.  If we accept the 3½ million number (and I have no basis to dispute it), then the truth would be that 3½ million jobs depend on our trade with the EU.  David attributes the figure to the BIS, though I believe it originated some years ago in a study by the NIESR, who of course understood immediately the way in which their numbers were being abused by the pro-Brussels tendency, and repudiated the claim (as expressed by the Europhiles) straight away and very robustly.

Two obvious responses.  First, if 3½ million British jobs depend on our trade with the EU, then a larger number — perhaps 5 million — EU jobs depend on their trade with us.  It is a mutual relationship, and one that actually offers them more benefits than it offers us.

The second point: David Lidington offers no evidence that the trade would be affected one way or the other by our ceasing to be members of the EU.  On Independence Day, we will continue to be members of the European Economic Area, so we will have an immediate free trade deal with the EU.  We may seek to renegotiate the terms of that EEA deal, but there is no question of us not having an FTA with the EU, and therefore no obvious reason for trade — or jobs — to suffer.  It is often noted that both Norway and Switzerland (both non-members of the EU) do more trade with the EU per capita than the UK does.

David does argue that access to the single market is a key factor in the UK attracting inward investment, but again he offers no reason why this should be so.  Indeed he falls into the trap of saying “They would locate elsewhere if we were not perceived as part of the EU”.  No David.  They would locate elsewhere if we were perceived as not having access to the single market.  But that eventuality will not arise.

There are only two possible explanations why Lidington (and indeed Hague and Cameron) continue to insist that “3½ million British jobs depend on EU membership”, when this is manifestly not the case.  Either they are deliberately mendacious, or they are guilty of the most outrageously sloppy thinking, of repeating a well-worn slogan without actually pausing to reflect on what they are saying.

I wouldn’t claim to be great mates with any of them, but of course I have met and spoken to them all, and I find it difficult to believe that they would be deliberately dishonest.  So I am forced to the second conclusion: that they stick to the threadbare but convenient sound-bite without bothering to examine it too closely.  Or at all.

I suspect that lurking in their minds just beyond the reach of consciousness is a deep unease with a proposition that is plainly and manifestly false, and I imagine that their subconscious minds deftly steer them away from the dangerous temptation to think again.  Meantime one of the greatest political issues of our generation festers for lack of clear analysis and decisive policy.

I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.  It is good to see that our Europe Minister sits in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Plainly the EU is not in the Commonwealth, so at least they recognise that it’s foreign.

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9 Responses to Confusion reigns at the FCO

  1. “….I find it difficult to believe that they would be deliberately dishonest…..”

    Sorry Mr. Helmer, but I don’t. After all, is not repetition of this 3 million jobs being deliberately dishonest? Did not Cameron lie when he stated he had vetoed the treaty when it was obvious that no treaty existed?

    • I think I have to take the charitable view. The 3 million jobs is (as I argue above) appallingly sloppy thinking, while the “Veto” was strictly speaking a statement that Cameron would be prepared to veto the proposed treaty. You can understand both Nicolas Sarkozy and newspaper sub-editors (for different reasons) reporting this simply as a Veto.

  2. Mr. Green says:

    Regardless of the Single Market, much of our trade with the EU (95 – 97%?) is covered by the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

    There seem to be many hidden, unstated factors silently binding us to EU membership. Why else would British business be burdened with the extra regulations of trading with the EU. Revealingly the BBC / Guardian / LibDem nexus has tried to assert that extra EU regulation does not affect trade and growth. ‘Extra’ means ‘extra to WTO’. After all, we don’t need to be part of the USA to trade with them. Our industry just needs to be aware of special product standards and requirements. And where these ‘requirements’ are simply non-tariff barriers we can take the case to the WTO.

    Personally I am looking forward to a genuine cost-benefit analysis of the UK’s EU membership. Instinctively I believe free trade, more emphasis on trade with the Commonwealth and respect for international (WTO) rules are more in the UK’s interest than membership of a shrinking European grouping. But I am willing to be persuaded, based on the facts.

    Our fisheries have been ransacked, our efficient farming has been dragged into the dreadful CAP subsidy-dependant culture and by contrast our fading manufacturing capacities have received very little ‘support’ from the EU (which in any case would simply be a small proportion of our high net contributions to the EU coming back to us, filtered through the hands of semi-corrupt, highly-paid (partly with our money) EU officials.

    • Absolutely right, Mr. Green. It is quite unforgiovable that Conservative Ministers refuse a proper EU cost-benefit analysis. One of them said they would not do it because the answer was self-evident. It is of course self-evident, but not quite in the way that he meant. It is equally unforgivable that Cameron refused a referendum on the grounds that he believed EU membership to be in our interest. But you don’t have a referendum to confirm the Prime Minister’s opinion. You have it to seek democratic legitimacy.

      • RH Said “It is equally unforgivable that Cameron refused a referendum on the grounds that he believed EU membership to be in our interest.”

        Yes, and as party Chairman said before the last election (which is one reason why the used to be Conservative party did not get my vote):

        ” It is the Conservative Party’s view that Britain benefits from our membership of the European Union. The EU does much that is worthwhile. The Single Market allows services, workers and goods to move freely across Europe. The tangible benefits such as cheaper telephone calls, air travel and internet access are enjoyed by tens of millions of Britons.

        The EU also provides a unique means for us to work together with our European partners on shared challenges which Europe’s nation states by themselves cannot deal with; and with enlargement, the goal of EU membership has persuaded not just governments but whole societies to raise their standards across the board. Britain has an enormous amount to gain through co-operation and free trade in Europe. That is why we want Britain to be a positive participant in the EU, championing liberal values.

        On issues such as the Working Time Directive the effect on our businesses and public services is potentially serious and damaging. That is why if we win the next general election a Conservative Government will have as a priority the restoration of national control over social and employment legislation.

        We are optimistic that with a firm view of our national interests in mind and a clear vision of Europe’s proper priorities – global competitiveness, global poverty and global warming – we can succeed in reforming the EU so that it is fit for the twenty first century.”

  3. Thank you Alfred. You illustrate perfectly why so many Conservative Party members and activists are in despair over the Party’s pro-Brussels stance.

  4. Faustiesblog says:

    Lidington, Hague and Cameron must be bricking it at the thought of Lord Pearson’s cost-benefit analysis (of our EU membership) proposal.

    If vetoed by party leaders and ministers, how plausible would the notion be that they are simply failing to examine the situation of our EU membership closely? It wouldn’t really fly, would it?

    So let’s see what they do. I’d bet that they will try to dismiss a cost-benefit analysis on the basis of its cost – conveniently forgetting the cost of the AV referendum which the majority didn’t want.

    Keep up the excellent work, Mr H – and thank you. I suspect your 2012 will bring you opportunities denied to party sock-puppets who meekly and tamely toe the party line. I hope you will take those opportunities and run with them.

    Happy New Year!

    • Faustiesblog says:

      Just noticed your comment on Cameron’s refusal to allow this cost-benefit analysis, Mr H.

      Well then. It is clear that he is *wilfully* failing to examine the situation. Therefore, I must conclude that he, Hague and Lidington are being “deliberately mendacious”, to put it mildly.

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