Sometimes your opponent can make your case better than you can.
Earlier today I attended a lunch debate in Brussels on Britain’s position in the EU, in the context of Cameron’s renegotiation attempt – or to put it more succinctly, on Brexit. I’m afraid it was Chatham House Rules, so I am unable to tell you either the name or the affiliation of the gentlemen whose story I’m about to recount – but it’s a good story nonetheless.
I suspect that I was the only eurosceptic in the room. This was Brussels, and almost everyone there would have been making a living out of the EU, one way or another (OK, fair enough, including me). As I have heard Dan Hannan remark, “It’s exceedingly difficult to get a man to admit that he is wrong, especially when his income depends on his being right”.
The second speaker, a distinguished British businessman, made no secret of his support for British membership, and repeatedly referred to “winning” the referendum (when he meant voting to stay – I’d call that losing). But he was clearly concerned, and perhaps disheartened, by the way things are going for the “IN” campaign. He said (quite rightly) that recent developments created “an unfortunate background”. Then he set out to warn his audience of the arguments that would be deployed by the “OUT” side.
First of all was the question of immigration. He well understood that free movement within the EU was not at all the same thing as the current wave of migration into the EU, but equally (and rightly) he recognised that the public are concerned about overall immigration numbers, which include both “EU Citizens” and in-comers from outside the EU. The UK population was increasing by half a million a year – about the population of Luxembourg. That put great strain on social infrastructure.
Moreover the EU’s inept handling of the immigration crisis tended to confirm the view that the EU institutions and structures simply couldn’t deal with crises.
Secondly, he cited the UK’s peripheral position, inside the EU but outside the eurozone. He recognised that there was no prospect of the UK ever joining the euro, but suggested that many would feel we’d lack influence as part of the EU’s out-group, as it were, and would be better off as an independent country. Indeed. One of the other speakers (whose name you would know instantly if I were free to reveal it) said “Britain is quite isolated (in the EU) and has few friends on the European Council”. But I thought we were told we had to be in the EU to avoid being isolated?
Third, these days major companies have global supply chains. A sprocket might come from Turin, but it might equally come from Taiwan. In a globalised world, what is the special relevance of an area defined merely by geographical proximity?
Fourthly, the EU gets a bad press, especially in the UK, and the institutions are not well loved. For this reason, it is becoming extremely difficult to motivate Britain’s brightest and best young people to pursue careers in the EU. This has the further effect of diminishing British influence.
And fifth: in hard cash terms, Britain’s contribution in the last five years has quadrupled from £3 billion to £12 billion – an amount which would offset most of the spending cuts the government is currently making. This (said the speaker) will feature mightily in the campaign.
I shook hands with the gentleman after the show and congratulated him on making the case for Brexit better than I could have done myself.