UK soul-searching over its EU membership

October 26, 2011

By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has put UK membership of the EU centre stage. His spat last weekend with Prime Minister David Cameron at the EU summit was captured by the global media. In no uncertain terms, he said that the UK hated the euro and should mind its own business. Cue a rebellion from Conservative backbenchers who scheduled and then lost a parliamentary vote this week on whether or not to hold a referendum on our membership in Europe. This faction may not be getting what it wants right now, but its voice is getting louder. More than 80 Conservative MP’s defied the wishes of their leader (some at the risk of losing  their jobs) and voted for the referendum after Tory backbencher David Nuttall proposed the motion because of an e-petition backed by more than 100,000 people. As the euro zone tries to fight for survival and re-write the rule book is now the time for the UK to contemplate its EU membership? Obviously for those Tory back benchers it is. But while David Cameron may call himself an “EU pragmatist”, the evidence suggests that the majority of people in the UK are “European Agnostics” – they don’t care if we are in Europe or not. In a recent poll by Angus Reid 49 percent of people in the UK said they want us to leave the EU. This compares with 60 percent of Conservative Party members, according to a recent poll by Conservative Home. So the rebellious Tories don’t really represent the majority view, and, with a very large margin of error, roughly half the population want us to stay in the euro zone, or couldn’t care either way. I suspect the latter is true. Most people have enough politics in their lives with the 24-hour news cycle and a general election every five years. The EU, with its myriad rules and regulations and multiple branches of power, is enough to drive most people dizzy. I don’t know anyone – not even European politics majors – who can say that they fully understand how the euro zone works. Thus, the way the EU impacts our lives may come as a surprise to some. Did you know that EU law takes precedence over UK law and that some UK laws are actually illegal according to the EU statute books? The EU is a huge influence in our lives, but why are people not that interested in whether we stay or we go? One answer is that we never voted to be in the EU in the first place. We joined the EU in 1973, before most people under 40 were even born. Thus, a huge cohort of the UK has never known life without EU membership. Added to this, a lot of the things we come into most contact with in our daily lives are actually controlled by the UK, for example public expenditure including social security, health and pensions. But the EU determines a huge amount that can influence the prosperity of this nation including our trade laws, rules on financial sector regulation and even some macroeconomic policy. And then there are the costs of our membership, which tends to grab the headlines once every couple of years. The UK’s contribution to the EU Budget topped £6.4 billion in 2009/10, this expanded to £7.9 billion in 2010/11, when the UK was recovering from the worst recession since the 1930’s. Added to this, the UK now receives a trimmed down rebate from Europe. This rebate was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, but was altered under Tony Blair’s leadership, which saw the rebate cut in return for a review of EU subsidies and the hopes of a smaller Budget. Those were sweet dreams: the EU’s budget continues to rise on cue each year. So what are the benefits of EU membership? Some may say not much, when you look at it from a cost-return basis, however that view is missing the point. EU membership allows the free movement of labour both to and from our shores as well as easy access to trade in the region; this is important since our European neighbours are our largest trading partners. The free movement of labour can be a controversial topic, however it has not only boosted the demographics of this country, but it has also had many cultural benefits. Perhaps the most important reason for our membership is prestige. The euro zone is the largest economy in the world, the UK is sixth largest but we are being chased for that spot by some fast-growing emerging market economies. Thus, our relationship with Europe helps to keep us at the forefront of the world stage. It also allows us to have a say over how to solve major global problems like the European sovereign debt crisis. The Tories may not have won their referendum this time, but our membership of the EU is likely to come under greater scrutiny as Europe’s short-comings continue to grip the headlines. But the fact is that our relationship with Europe is of the love-hate variety and it is likely to drag on for some time yet. Image — Colin Hingston from Southampton stands with other anti-European Union demonstrators as they wait to go into The Houses of Parliament in London October 24, 2011. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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