Doreen Bailey recently posted a discussion ‘Leaving the EU’ and Brian Cave asked about ‘Britain out of Europe’. It is an extraordinarily timely question. The government in the UK is totally divided with the Conservatives having some very committed pro-Europeans confronted with the growing ‘Fresh Start’ anti-EU group. The Libdems, whilst policy wise pro-EU, are rather shaky. The Labour opposition is also factional. All of them are in fact looking over their shoulders at UKIP. However, in recent polls even UKIP has slipped back from the popularity it was enjoying a couple of months ago.
At the same time, David Cameron and George Osborne are sabre rattling and telling the EU that unless there is treaty renegotiation the UK might have to pull out. Opinion polls show that a referendum is supported by the majority of the population, however Cameron has made it clear that it would only happen after a General Election that saw him returned to office and that the questions would also be framed on a basis of renegotiation rather than withdrawal.
Now a number of pro-EU ‘heavyweights’ have joined forces to argue for continuation without renegotiation and, essentially, further integration. Ken Clarke is foremost amongst those since he still holds a parliamentary seat and a government position, albeit Minister without Portfolio by name. He is also President of the Conservative Europe Group and Vice-President of the European Movement UK. Then there is Michael Heseltine, now in the House of Lords. Finally, there is Peter Mandelson, also a peer and European Commissioner for Trade from 2004 to 2008. Mandelson is often highly reviled for many of his ‘extra-parliamentary’ activities and a few where he used parliamentary privilege, but nonetheless an EU champion. Clarke is probably one of the shrewdest politicians of our times, with far more experience than most other serving MPs and whatever our political allegiances might be, amongst the politicians with integrity who is as honest as a politician might ever be. All three have aspired to leadership of their parties, the two Conservatives having actually stood as candidates. Not one of them is a political novice or fool.
Day by day there are new media reports about the Cameron push toward the right, the growing influence of the Fresh Start group as well as opposition and outside comments and advice. We know that Tory Eurosceptics want powers repatriated or a referendum on an exit immediately. Our European partners don't want either and have said so. Angela Merkel provided Cameron’s greatest hope of getting revision of the Lisbon Treaty, but she has now stated no immediate interest in that, at least until after the German general election this autumn. It goes further than EU partners though.
In the UK the financial, commercial and manufacturing sectors are set against drastic changes that will affect trading arrangements in particular or exit which would cause an enormous and almost immediate outflow of capital and production. Their point of view is that the economic foundations of the UK would be undermined. Vast amounts of foreign capital invested in ‘UK plc’ would be withdrawn and reinvested elsewhere. That would immediately affect exchange rates for one thing and GNP would also get the backlash. The focus of European banking is London now, after a withdrawal it would certainly become Frankfurt. Trade would be lost, affected by the changes in exchange rates and a less free market between the UK and mainland Europe. Since worldwide other markets are growing fast, for instance China, India, Brazil, Nigeria and others moving up rapidly, a small island with a manufacturing sector that has radically declined and with an urgent need to re-skill its labour force would be at a terrible disadvantage. Whoever says otherwise is simply using bravado rather than common sense and certainly not listening to finance pundits and economists.
Then our usually dependable ally, the USA, has just stated its position that they wish to see the UK remain at the heart of the EU rather than move to the fringe or out altogether. There are echoes of Henry Kissinger’s statement that he wished he had a single phone number for Europe instead of many. It also reflects Ben Bernanke’s view as Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and as a former senior academic economist who encouraged the International Monetary Fund to support the Euro. The IMF and European Central Bank have ended the direct threat of a Euro collapse and despite cruel austerity measures in several EU countries and massive unemployment, the Euro economy is recovering. To an extent the USA is very influential in these things happening, but Eurosceptics do not want to listen despite the USA having its own enormous economic problems that mean they would not take an EU free UK under its wing as some imagine. It has been very clearly ruled out, indeed far more by the Republicans than by the governing Democrats. So no refuge there.
Where does that leave us then? It creates a great deal of uncertainty to begin with. There are bills waiting in the Commons and Lords to ‘repatriate’ pensions, winter fuel allowances and voting rights. Pensions is a very difficult one, no doubt that will not happen. But we cannot rule anything out. The other two, well one cannot be so sure. If Euroscepticism gains enough support then it may see both withdrawn. It is very highly likely that people not resident in the UK would be excluded from any kind of EU referendum. They are not the most enormous deprivations in this world but they are part of turning backs on people who have left the UK. The present political situation in the UK is also putting more vigour back into the campaign for Scottish independence that goes to a referendum next year. At present it looks very unlikely a majority will vote for it, but each week Westminster makes life harder for Scots the worm is turning and there is again a small likelihood that the plebiscite will see the breakup of the union set in chain. Welsh Nationalists have been demanding a parliament to replace their assembly for some time, a pro-independence vote in Scotland would reignite enthusiasm there. It is highly likely it will not happen this time but within a generation will probably happen. How does that affect us? Well, as the UK devolves down to simply England with an autonomous Wales and who knows what will happen in relatively autonomous Ulster anyway, the clout the union has had will decline sharply. England alone will be a small part player in a large continent where even Scots neighbours might be EU members.
People living on continental Europe also see such things as pension ages going up in the UK and down in EU states. Retirement age goes up to 66 from 2020 and 67 from 2028, the flat rate pension will be £144 in 2017 as against a basic rate of £107 now. The pension itself does not match most needs in any EU country, indeed not in the UK. The extra years between normal retirement ages in the EU and when pensions will be received will be gap years when UK citizens without work or an alternative income will in many cases be impoverished. A change in treaty terms or withdrawal from the EU would mean any benefits in such areas as health possibly even entirely lost. That would be the case of the UK impoverishing its own. Would the solution be for everybody to go ‘home’? Well, just how? Many have been here too long, many are married to French and other European nationals and children are therefore not at all ‘British’, indeed may very well not want to be and many others may simply not want to. Then there are the issues we all know about such as selling up to go back. The property price downturn is far from over in several European countries and France especially. UK property is by and large far more expensive. So that poses the problem of when or if people can sell up or do they simply abandon their properties and hope that values and the market will turn around whilst they are able to benefit from that? That is too risky and not viable for most people, so not a good option. The UK is a very expensive place and so the rental option would deplete people’s piggy banks very quickly, spiralling them down to the poverty line that is also well enough explained to us by media of all political persuasions.
Is it a political choice? Well, I am trying to be as apolitical as anyone can be under the circumstances, despite my own political and EU views. Objectivity is far more important than any dogmatic line informed by people who often have great enough wealth to bail out if their anti-EU strategy fails and after UK withdrawal the place goes to wrack and ruin. Just out of interest I looked at political affiliation of UK citizens in France early this morning. There are quite a few Conservative Associations throughout France but I could not find Labour or Libdems, although one might assume they have some members. UKIP would not even bother because it would go against the grain of what they are saying, so I did not waste my time. So perhaps there are far more Conservatives in France than any other coherent group but what it is difficult to see is where they stand on the EU. I believe numerically most of my old friends in the UK are Tories, when we email each other, talk on the phone or write an old style letter the issue almost inevitably arises. Most of them are against any kind of change in the EU-UK status quo, but yes a few really do want out. However, I find exactly the same amongst friends of other political persuasions in more or less the same proportions. So I think it is far more difficult than any case presented to us by a UK politician, indeed my view is that we need to be better informed by those where the real interests are to be found in finance, trade and manufacturing. The problem is that they keep things a bit closer to their chests, ready to run if necessary and what we hear from them are but scraps of what could be a more rounded and useful picture than any other.