With Nigel Wickens and Susan at The Barn Restaurant at Upper Stowe
On Dec 18th, I spoke at a very convivial Christmas Dinner organised by the Daventry and South Northants UKIP Branch. After some festive pleasantries, I discussed some of the issues that will arise during the Brexit debate (indeed a few moments ago I was listening to the BBC’s Any Questions over lunch, and a number of these issues did indeed arise). One of the guests asked if I could let them have some notes of the points I made, so here goes.
First, Cameron’s “renegotiation”. While UKIP wants nothing less than independence, many Conservative Backbenchers and activists might be satisfied with a few real and substantive EU reforms, of the type that Cameron was hinting at a year ago. Reinstatement of John Major’s Maastricht opt-outs, which Tony Blair gave away — especially in so far as they cover employment and the Social Chapter. Control of our borders. A reassertion of parliamentary sovereignty in Westminster. And, we mighty add, control of energy and environment policy, and agriculture and fisheries. And especially the right to make our own trade deals with third countries where the EU fails to do so.
In the end, Cameron asked for none of these things. He’s reduced the whole debate to the relatively narrow and trivial issue of in-work benefits for EU migrants. (If we could control our borders, we wouldn’t need to fiddle about with differential welfare benefits). Cameron has so far been successful in focussing on this detail and avoiding the real issues. But he’s also succeeded in demonstrating to the British people that we simply can’t get our own way in the EU. He has asked for precious little, and he will get even less.
Then, jobs. We are tired of hearing the claim that “3½ million jobs depend on EU membership”. This is based on a report from the NIESR in 2000 which was immediately picked up and spun by EU apologists. The Director of NIESR immediately came out to condemn the spin, and to point out that the jobs depend on the trade, not the EU membership, and added that “there was no a prioi reason while all or any of that trade would be lost”.
Of course not. For a start, if Britain were simply an arms-length third country, and we paid the Common External Tariff on goods exported to the continental EU, the total annual duty would be around £3.5 billion a year — around a third of our net budget contributions.
But of course we will not be treated as an arms-length third country. We will have a free trade deal with the EU (as, say, Korea andChile have), and the trade (and the jobs) will continue as before. Digby Jones, former Director of the CBI, has said “If we leave the EU, we will have a Free Trade Deal within 24 hours”. Why? Because we import much more from continental Europe than we export to them. We are in fact their largest overseas customer, bar none. They need the deal more than we do. Those auto executives from Mercedes and Audi and BMW will be knocking on the door of the Commission demanding a UK FTA ASAP, so that they can continue to sell their cars in the UK.
Just for the record, if there really are 3½ million UK jobs depending on UK/EU trade, then there are five or six million continental jobs depending on trade with the UK. Go figure.
Trade deals. We are told we need the “clout” of the EU’s 28 countries and 500-million-consumer market to enable us to do trade deals. Indeed I was told by economist Vicky Pryce (the ex-wife of the notorious Chris Huhne) that Britain alone would be “far too small” to do a trade deal with the USA. I had to remind her that the USA already has bilateral trade deals with around twenty third-countries, andevery one of those countries has a smaller economy than the UK. Every one. Ms. Pryce was talking nonsense, and should have known better.
One of those smaller countries is Singapore (with GDP around one ninth of the UK). Years ago, I went with the then Ambassador of Singapore in Brussels to see the then EU Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, to urge him to do a free trade deal with Singapore. He made it clear that he thought an EU FTA was not (as it should be) about mutual benefit for the parties. It was, rather, a lever or bargaining tool to put pressure on ASEAN (including Singapore) to integrate on the EU model. So today, Singapore has a deal with theUS but not the EU, giving the US a competitive advantage over the EU in Singapore in particular, and to an extent across South East Asia.
And for the record, little Switzerland and tiny Iceland both have FTAs with China. We don’t, and nor does the EU.
Negotiating clout. “OK”, say the pro-EU politicians, “you may be able to negotiate a deal of some sort, but as a smaller entity you can’t possibly get such a good deal”. This is exactly the reverse of the truth. Before EU negotiators can even sit down with (say) USnegotiators, they first have to go through all the horse-trading between 28 EU member-states with different interests and different objectives. UK interests are massively diluted before the US negotiations can even start. As a top-ten economy we would do much better by speaking with a unified voice and representing ourselves and our interests directly at the negotiating table.
Status Quo. One of the biggest arguments our opponents will use is fear. “We’ve been in the EU for forty-some years”, they’ll say. “We know where we are. Outside we’ll be in unknown territory. The risks are enormous”. Good heavens — fancy being at risk of doing as well as countries like Switzerland or Norway or Canada or Korea. Many countries smaller than us can cope with independence successfully, and we can too. But the key response to this argument is that the EU doesn’t represent any kind of status quo. No. Right there in the Treaty of Rome we have the pledge to “Ever Closer Union”, and that will continue whatever form of words Cameron comes back with. The choice is between self-confident, democratic independence, or an unstoppable journey to an ill-defined but federal/integrated super-state. Safety lies in taking back control of our own affairs — not in leaving them with the Brusselsnomenklatura.