If you believe in a state called Europe, you might criticise the EU’s failure to integrate more rapidly or for its inefficiency. On the other hand, if you think the EU should focus on the single market and you attach importance to democracy and national sovereignty, you will see the project has already gone too far. This is the essential difference between ‘europhiles’ and ‘eurosceptics’.
There is then a sub-set of eurosceptics – ‘europhobes’ perhaps – who think the whole project is irredeemable and serves little or no purpose. For them, reform is irrelevant; the only answer is to leave.
The difficulty is that the EU is here. Germany in particular has invested enormous political and financial capital in Europe, and does not want to see it fail. Unless the EU collapses under its own contradictions, it would still be there even if a country such as the UK were to leave. What if the continental nations were then to integrate rapidly and take major decisions against the interests of the departed? What if the confidence of international investors in the UK was shaken or the United States shifted its strategic attachment? Among eurosceptics, therefore, many see the disadvantage in just rushing for the exit.
The British prime minister is a pragmatic sceptic who sees the dangers of leaving but knows he has to deliver a meaningful reform package if he is to convince a very sceptical population. The precise content of the desired British reform package is still under wraps. But we have some idea of the broad elements under discussion:
- Sovereignty and an end to “ever-closer union”; the primacy of national parliaments; the sanctity of national legal systems, reform of the European Court of Justice and the return of certain national veto powers;
- Ensuring that non-eurozone countries are not disadvantaged by eurozone decisions; protecting vital national interests through a ‘red card’ system; removing interfering regulation and legislation such as the ‘Working Time Directive’;
- Immigration control at our borders; acceptance of free movement to work and to set up businesses but not to spread crime or live off benefits;
- Reclaim competitiveness. The EU economy is expected to grow by a dismal 1.5% in 2015 – half the U.S. growth and a quarter of China or India’s. It suffers from burdensome regulation and failure to remove barriers to an efficient single market and to develop a digital infrastructure.
I believe there are two further major areas of concern. First, foreign affairs and defence. The European External Action Service is eroding the role of national embassies, and talk of ambition for an “EU Army” threatens national control over defence procurement and armed forces, and is a serious distraction from revitalising NATO. The second is cost. While government spending in our countries is being cut, the EU is a beacon of extravagance and public largesse at our taxpayers’ expense. The UK is the second largest net contributor to the EU budget after Germany. Too much EU money is wasted on poorly-targeted development and aid programmes. While administration is only a small part of the budget, it is ripe for cuts – the second seat of the Parliament at Strasbourg is an egregious example.
Bear in mind that before the end 2017, the British people will be asked: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?”
Image credit: European Union 2015