It is important to remember that the UK joined a “Common market”. The British people have only been asked once for their opinion. In 1975 they were asked if they wished to remain in a “Common market”. The whole EU project has always been sold to the British people in terms of selling more goods, creating more jobs and having access to the wider EU economy. Usually politicians at the same offered assruances that sovereignty or British “red lines” would be preserved. No mainstream party ever argued that surrendering sovereignty was for the greater good, or set out the full EU project to the British people.
This is not how most continentals see the project. They have always seen it as primarily a political project. They wanted the UK in, as they wish to move to common government in more and more areas. They want to make sure the UK cannot differentiate and outperform.
It is time anyway that the UK government dropped the argument that we have to go along with much of the EU agenda in order to enjoy all the benefits of the common market. This is way out of date. The world of the 1970s was hedged around with tariffs, which meant belonging to the EU area did lower some barriers. As it happens they lowered the barriers more quickly on industrial goods which favoured the contiental exporters than they lowered the barriers on services which would helped the UK more. As a result we always ran a balance of payments deficit with the rest of the EU. Today access to the EU market is assured by the rules of the World Trade Organisation, which has lowered barriers more effectively for the world as a whole. Non members of the EU have equally good access to the market as members.
Some in government recognise this shift, and argue that our membership is important because it allows us a say in shaping the myriad regulations and Directives which the EU imposes on those who trade within its area. The last government showed it is possible to get little or no leverage over those same rules, as their style of avoiding serious engagement or confrontation on difficult issues meant the UK accepted the lowest common denominator or the Commission view.
The problem for the UK is that the EU lost its economic dynamism shortly after the UK joined. Subsequent decisions to widen the area, merge DM with Ostmark, and then to create the Euro have added to the woes of the central economies. The EU is now a slow growth area at best. It has a malfunctioning currency which cannot work for all the varied economies forced into it. It has a declining working age population in most countries. It is being rapdily outpaced by the more dynamic parts of the world.
The danger for the UK is that we will be left with too many expensive and inappropriate rules, reglations, taxes and charges as a result of the EU’s legislative excesses. This will hinder us, making it more difficult for us to compete with the freer and faster growing countries elsewhere. If the Uk cannot persuade the EU to embark on a major programme of deregulation and repeal, it needs to negotiate a way out from the more damaging measures for itself. We should not see our EU relationship as the cornerstone of our jobs and prosperity, but as a problem to manage when the rest of the world is getting a lot more competitive.
The recent meeting showed the problem starkly. The UK government was unable to get cuts in the large and growing EU budget, or even to achieve a standstill, because it has to proceed by majority voting. The government can dig in and insist on a falling budget for 2014-20, as they have a veto over that. They can also dig in over the proposed new Treaty. If the EU wants to Uk to sign it, the Uk should demand some powers back from the many areas where Conservatives opposed Labour’s past surrenders of authority.