Monday, January 14, 2013

Early thoughts on the UK/EU relationship

Seems that the Coalition Government is moving remorselessly to its 'date with destiny' confrontation about the future of the UK's relationship with the EU. I would much prefer if we could avoid it, but cannot see how this defining debate can be put off for much longer. Later this month, the Prime Minister will deliver a much vaunted speech on the issue. Rather him than me. How does it work when a significant chunk of his own party want a change in the relationship, tantamount to withdrawal, while his Coalition partners will not tolerate such a position. We are about to find out. There are Conservative MPs at every point on the spectrum. I very much hope not, but things could become a bit turbulent.

Very difficult to establish with certainty what my own position is on this. But I feel a need to use my blog to indulge in some thinking aloud. So here goes with a 'first step'. In 1975, when Harold Wilson's Gov't held a referendum, I was fiercely opposed to remaining a member of the European Economic Community that Edward Heath's Gov't had taken us into the year before. I was a teenage firebrand who thought this creature would develop into all-powerful bureaucracy that would devour democracy and expand until it collapsed under its own weight. Allowing for the hyperbole of youth, I'm not sure I was that far wrong - except that we don't see much sign of the 'collapse' bit yet.

During the 80s and early 90s I spent a fair bit of time on EU matters, promoting regional development and as part of Wales' bid for regional aid. When trying to secure best deals for Wales, it was easy to become too involved in the system to ask fundamental questions about the UK/EU relationship. But two things struck me which I remember well. Firstly, the massive building programmes and glass palaces in Brussels creating office space for the new European bureaucracy, and the impotence of MEPs. All they ever did was secure access to the officials who were the real decision makers.

My next brush with EU integration was the creation of the Euro - which I was totally opposed to. It always looked like a completely mad project to me. I could never see how a group of states could share the same currency without becoming a single political entity. Always thought those who wanted the UK to adopt the Euro, also wanted to end the UK as an independent political entity in any meaningful sense. I still think this outcome is inevitable. The Euro countries will become, in effect, one state, with the richer countries subsidising the poorer countries via a sort of Barnett Formula. Its this inevitable integrationist change that's driving us to confront the UK/EU relationship today.

It has to change. It cannot go on as it is. There must be a renegotiation - and meaningful. And it seems that there will have to be a referendum to agree the change. Many will want the alternative to approval of the newly agreed relationship to be complete withdrawal. If the PM has negotiated a new relationship he finds acceptable, I cannot see the point of the status quo being considered any further. Too soon to say which option I'd vote for at this stage. But like others, I do not rule out voting for withdrawal, but we would need to be sure that the economic and political disbenefit were not too high. The withdrawn UK would become a different type of country, perhaps no longer dining at the top table. A century ago, Gt Britain was the dominant power on earth, days which are long gone. Over the next few years we are going to have to make some big decisions about where we want to sit, and how big a role we want to play in the future.


Glyndo said...

"And it seems that there will have to be a referendum to agree the change. And the alternative to approval of the newly agreed relationship may well be withdrawal altogether."

Surely the choice would have to be approval of the change or the status quo. Otherwise the present situation is not represented in the choice and that would not seem to be right.

Glyn Davies said...

Glydno - Not sure that would be acceptable - unless the change was very significant. Its this choice of referendums which seem to me to put pressure on those who want the UK to remain in the EU to agree to a changed relationship.

robvsnature said...

Personally I would favour just a common market access deal with the EU. In fact I think that will become more likely in the next few years. As you stated, the Eurozone countries will effectively become one sovereign entity (A couple of the countries might drop out at this point but it will have to happen) whilst there will be a looser ring around it with Britain being the leader as Germany would be in the eurozone. All of the EU nations would be involved in the rules governing the single market but only the eurozone states would be involved in the other aspects.

Or Britain may decide to leave altogether if the other EU states flat out refuse any significant repatriation of powers. Not that we should fear that, it would not lead to the sky falling in as the likes of Martin Sorrel and Richard Branson claim. For if we left the EU they would want to negotiate a trade deal sharply with Britain as they export far more to us than we to them, in fact our trade to EU countries is even less than many people realise as a lot of our trade to other nations around the world end up being redirected via Rotterdam which adds to our EU trading figures even if the destination is on the other side of the world.

All I hope is that there can be a proper grown up debate over europe in the next few years without the scaremongering or distortions (from either side!). I do hope that the FO's competencies study on the impact of our EU membership will better inform the debate and Sir Humphrey doesn't try and spin it. Cold hard facts and figures are what is needed so that the country can make a pragmatic decision.