Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  -  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


Britain, Europe and the Future

The debate about Britain’s relationship with the European Union is never far from the political agenda and is bound to intensify with the mounting controversy over the principle, timing and consequences of the proposed referendum on membership and the approach of the elections to the European Parliament in May 2014.

Has the European Union helped to preserve the peace, create a powerful trading partnership and establish a strong, united voice in world affairs and has Britain’s membership contributed to national prosperity and global influence? Or has it undermined British sovereignty, given bureaucrats in Brussels an unprecedented measure of control over our internal affairs and imposed costs rather than benefits on British taxpayers? Will enlargement and closer integration with our partners lead to still greater economic and political benefits or will we be submerged in a European superstate? Are we better in or out? Seasoned campaigners from opposite ends of the spectrum debate the issues.

Stephen Tindale

Centre for European Reform

Stephen Tindale is an associate fellow at the Centre for European Reform, working mainly on energy and climate policy but also on the EU budget.

He also runs the website Climate Answers and is co-author, with Prashant Vaze, of  Repowering commmunties: Small scale solutions to large scale problems (Earthscan, June 2011), about the role local government, co-operatives and community organisations play in energy supply and efficiency.

Stephen has previously been Head of Communications and Public Affairs for RWE npower renewables, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, adviser to Environment Minister Michael Meacher and a UK diplomat.

The Centre for European Reform is an independent, unaffiliated and not-for-profit think-tank devoted to making the European Union work better and strengthening its role in the world.

The CER is pro-European but not uncritical, regarding European integration as largely beneficial but recognising that in many respects the Union does not work well. It aims to promote an open, outward-looking and effective European Union and believes that it should take on more responsibilities globally on issues ranging from climate change to security.

CER won best UK international affairs think-tank at the Prospect Think Tank Awards in 2013.

Robert Oulds

The Bruges Group

Robert Oulds is the Director of the Bruges Group. He has a degree in Politics and a Master's in Communications Management.

His books include Everything you wanted to know about the EU but were afraid to ask (Bretwalda Books),  Montgomery and the First War on Terror: What a British military hero can teach those fighting today’s war on terror (Bretwalda Books) and Knife Edge: Montgomery and the Battle of the Bulge (Endeavour Press).

Robert has been a Conservative Councillor in Chiswick since 2002 and is also the Standard-Bearer and Treasurer of the Chiswick Branch of the Royal British Legion.

The Bruges Group is an independent all-party think tank which was established in 1989 to promote the idea of a less centralised European structure.

Its inspiration was the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's speech in  Bruges in September 1988 in which she remarked that "we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super­state exercising a new dominance from Brussels".

Through its publications and wide-ranging discussions The Bruges Group has spearheaded the intellectual battle against the notion of ever closer union in Europe and aims to continue its fight against further integration and, above all, against British involvement in a single European state.

Proposition

Peace, Prosperity and Progress

The EU is far from perfect and needs reform. But European integration has delivered substantial political, economic and social benefits. The UK is much better off inside the EU than outside.

Integration has helped keep the peace. Since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, there have been no wars between member states. There have been in parts of Europe outside in EU – for example in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. There has been violence within member states, including in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But the fact that the UK and Ireland are both in the EU helped end the troubles. Serbia' keenesss to join the EU has helped prevent it attacking Kosovo again.

EU membership delivers significant economic benefits, mainly because of the trade and investment advantages of being inside the single market. Jacques Delors, former President of the European Commission, rightly observed that it is hard to fall in love with the idea of a single market. It is easier to fall in love with the idea of wealth – and the single market helps deliver wealth. The CBI calculates that for every UK household EU membership is worth £3,000 a year, more than ten times its financial cost estimated at £280.

Britain could be in the single market without being in the EU as Norway is. But that would mean following most EU rules without having any say in setting them. Norway pays fees for its access to the single market and its contributions to the EU budget are higher than Britain’s.

Alternatively, the UK could forego single market access and focus instead on trade with other parts of the world. This could in theory make up for the reduced trade with the EU. But the EU is much more likely to be able to negotiate favourable trade arrangements with major economies such as the US or China than the UK could on its own.

Membership has meant some sharing of sovereignty. But in the era of globalisation, national sovereignty has limits anyway. As Margaret Thatcher said in her Bruges speech, there are things European nations “can do better together than alone”. Trade is one, as she also said in that speech. Another is climate change. Exactly a week after Bruges, Thatcher – a trained scientist – gave a historic speech to the Royal Society. She pointed out that “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” and went on to note that it was necessary “to consider the wider implications for policy—for energy production, for fuel efficiency, for reforestation”.

This consideration has been going on ever since. EU climate policy is far from perfect – too much focus on targets and roadmaps, too little on policy. The market mechanism introduced to cut emissions and encourage investment in cleaner energy, the Emissions Trading System, has had little impact so far and needs radical restructuring.

Nevertheless, there have been some important measures such as the energy efficiency standards for electric goods. These goods are traded so the UK could not set its own standards unless it left the single market. The current UK government has a good energy policy with a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide new electricity plants are allowed to emit. It would be much better for the global climate and for the British economy if this policy was adopted Europe-wide. The UK has also introduced a price floor for emissions trading which would be much more effective Europe-wide. So Britain should remain in the EU to help protect the climate.

Does this mean rule by Brussels bureaucrats? No. EU decisions are taken by elected MEPs and national governments. The Commission can only propose, not decide. If that is unacceptable, Britons should argue for Commission elections.

It would be both unnecessary and foolish to leave the EU.

Proposition

Economic Decline, Bureaucracy and Interference

The European Union is most definitely in relative if not actual economic decline. According to a report by the European Commission, Global Europe 2050, the EU accounted in 2000 for 25% of world economic output. However, by 2050 its share of global GDP will be "as low as 15%". The EU’s own report goes on to say that "by 2050, Europe’s share of global economic product may be lower than it was before the onset of industrialisation, hardly a trend leading toward global economic dominance".

There are many faux claims about the supposed benefits of EU membership. The growing unemployment queues across the continent tell a markedly different story.

One myth is that membership is required for trade and to access the EU’s internal market. But this ignores the fact that the EU has 45 free trade agreements with other nations around the globe.

There are also other nations in Europe that are not in the EU but belong instead to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).  These are amongst the most prosperous countries on the continent and benefit the most from Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the direct business investment by overseas companies which is a good indicator of an economy’s health.

Evidence from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows both that the EU is suffering from a shortage of FDI and that the EFTA states benefit from being outside the EU. In terms of FDI counted in US dollars per capita, it is clear that membership of EFTA benefits its members far more than membership of the EU.

The cost of the EU is ruinously high. The UK’s gross payments in the 2014/15 financial year will reach more than £18.7 billion with a net contribution, less the rebate and EU spending in Britain, totalling nearly £9.37 billion per year.

This is not the only cost. Both Oxfam and the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimate that the Common Agricultural Policy costs the average family around €1,000 per year.

However, at the very heart of the costs of the EU to its members is the excessive regulation that is imposed in order to construct European governance. Günter Verhuegen, as Vice-President of the European Commission, estimated that the annual cost of EU regulation across the EU amounted to €600 billion per annum (around 5.5% of GDP).

The rules of the European Union codified in the EU treaties prevent national democratic procedures, whether by votes in Parliament or by referenda, from amending let alone abolishing a single one of these legal measures.

This complete body of EU law is known as the acquis communitaire and runs to more than 170,000 pages of active legislation in force, with over 100,000 EU rules, international agreements and legal acts binding on or affecting citizens across the EU.

This body of law is added to at the rate of around 3,000 new pieces of legislation each year. How many of Britain’s new laws originate or are influenced by the EU?

A study by the House of Commons Library found that more than 50% of the UK’s new laws come from Brussels or are influenced by the requirements to adopt EU rules. What is more, the British Parliament has to impose criminal sanctions if an EU law has been contravened. This is legislation over which the democratic institutions of the UK have little influence.

Britain is quite clearly better off out.

Response

The EU will have a lower share of global output in 2050. But that’s good news. All humans are of equal value, so it’s welcome that China, India, Brazil and many other economies are growing.

Lengthening unemployment queues have been a result of the global economic recession. The UK would have been hit in or out of the EU. Robert points out that “the EU has 45 free trade agreements”. That’s right – but it’s the EU not the UK which has them. Would big economies sign free trade agreements with small countries like the UK?

As Robert’s reference to the European Free Trade Area demonstrates, it is of course possible to be wealthy outside the EU. Norway’s wealth is derived from oil and gas, and Switzerland’s is based on banking. Norway obeys most EU rules in return for access to the single market, but gets no vote in setting them. Switzerland has to negotiate on many issues in order to get access to the EU market – and EU institutions have said that this option will not be open to the UK if we leave.

The cost of membership per household is less than the benefits which the CBI calculates as £3,000 a year. I agree that the Common Agricultural Policy is wasteful and should be radically reformed. Indeed, public goods such as landscape protection should be secured through regulation, not subsidy.

There are some unnecessary or outdated EU regulations - but also many valuable ones. Would we want vehicles belching more pollution out of their exhausts, as they did before EU regulations? Or untreated sewage in bathing waters?

What’s the problem with UK laws being influenced by the EU? EU rules are set by the elected European Parliament and the elected Council of Ministers. The unelected Commission can only propose – it can’t make laws. But it could be elected if that would help. The UK should stay in, and work with other countries to reform the EU.

Response

The EU cannot be reformed. The commitment to ever-closer Union was enshrined in the treaties that govern the EU and it’s fanciful to presume that the European Commission and its ally the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will abandon their quest to establish a government for governments in Europe.

As Roman Herzog, former President of Germany and the German Constitutional Court, wrote the “ECJ deliberately and systematically ignores fundamental principles of the Western interpretation of law…(and) undermines the competences of the Member States even in the core fields of national powers”.

Amongst European leaders, ‘reform’ is just another word for more centralisation and the EU is creating divisions both between the politically well-connected who benefit from EU legislation and the small businesses which cannot afford its costs, and between those in the few nations which benefit from the euro and the millions in other countries who have lost their jobs because of it.

There are alternatives to EU membership which would allow the UK to have full access to the EU’s internal market but also more influence over the setting of global and EU regulation.

Indeed, Norway has actually been described as a ‘leader’ in EU rule making. According to the OECD it has lead the EU in the formulation of environmental legislation.

Britain will be better off re-joining EFTA. EFTA concluded a free trade arrangement with South Korea five years before the EU and Iceland, a non-EU state, was the first and only country in Europe to agree a free trade deal with China. Meanwhile the EU denies the UK the right to establish its own trade and investment treaties with emerging economies around the world.

It is time for Britain to think global.

Conclusion

The EU can be reformed. It has been in the past – for example, by means of direct elections to the European Parliament and through the Single European Act – and will be in the future. The concept of ever closer union is dead, as the Dutch government and many others have said.

It is time to be more selective. Not everything about the EU is good. Agriculture and fisheries policies are not. But not everything is bad either: policies on air quality, chemicals and minimum days’ holiday make life better, safer and more fun.

The UK could follow Norway’s example – though Norway has saved North Sea oil revenue while we have not.  But Norway certainly does not lead EU rule making on the environment or in any other area. It simply has to obey the rules, a cause of considerable discontent in Norway. And if Britain left the EU, it would not become another green beacon alongside Norway. Green issues are prominent in Norwegian politics. In Britain they are not. We would be much more likely to revert to being ‘the dirty man of Europe’.

EFTA has indeed signed a free trade deal with South Korea as has Iceland with China. These deals remove tariffs but do not prevent the use of non-tariff barriers which are now the main obstacles to trade. The EU’s deal with South Korea addresses non-tariff barriers and an EU-China free trade deal would do so too. The UK could not achieve the same either acting alone or with EFTA countries.

Yes, it is time for Britain to think global – though not as in the past. The modern world has no place for neo-imperialism. Let’s think global about global warming. The UK has good climate policies but they won’t achieve much if only implemented in small islands off the northern European coast. There’s no effective world governance. So the least bad approach is to get them implemented at European level. The UK government led the debate on the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework which the Commission proposed on 22 January. That’s just the latest evidence that it’s worth having a seat at the table.

National parliaments should work more closely together to increase the democratic scrutiny of Commission proposals. If enough parliaments object to a proposal, they should issue a red card and the Commission should be obliged to withdraw it. And the British parliament should insist on debating the line the Government will take on European issues in advance, rather than just discussing it afterwards. That would reduce the perceived ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU.

Anyone concerned about lack of democracy in the UK should look to our own institutions. They shouldn’t insist on withdrawal from the EU. Instead, they should campaign for an elected second chamber to replace the anachronistic House of Lords.

Conclusion

Countries outside the EU have far lower unemployment than those in it. Even Günter Verhuegen acknowledged the damage inflicted by EU red-tape on jobs and enterprise, holding back economic output by as much as 5.5% of GDP. The report by the Better Regulation Task Force commissioned in 2005 by the pro-EU then premier Tony Blair also estimated that EU regulation cost the British economy 5-6% of GDP, or £75 billion pounds per year, excluding the direct costs to the taxpayer.

Commissioner Verhuegen did want to end the EU’s legislative avalanche. But his bid for reform was blocked by the EU’s administrative culture and that’s not surprising given its openness to the influence not so much of national parliaments as of powerful pressure groups and multi-national businesses.

Since 2010 there have been 3,580 new EU rules on business that would take 92 days to read. There are now more than 170,000 pages of EU law. Well financed lobbies, whether national or commercial, are well able to promote their own interests and often at the expense of their competitors.

Indeed, whereas Britain has to surrender approaching £10 billion net to the EU in order to be bound by its regulations, other groups are actually paid by the EU to lobby it.

For example, the £3 million received by the EU’s Civil Society Contact Group in 2011 made up the bulk of the funding of each of its NGO members that year. They use that funding and the access which goes with it to influence the EU policy making process and in return are encouraged to promote the European ideal to their networks in their home countries and across Europe.

So, as the bulk of EU money comes from the nation states, their citizens are effectively paying these NGOs to make recommendations that lead to their own countries losing power and influence.

What is more, for the EU member states influence has a cost associated with it, the membership fee; yet for civil society groups influence actually pays. That the EU institutions make decisions behind closed doors which override national democracy often made at the behest of one particular unelected lobby is nothing less than a scandal.

On the wider front, the UK’s trade in goods and services with the rest of the EU has fallen by over 13% since 2000. But in the same period it has increased by 12% with the rest of the world. It is clear that there are emerging markets around the globe that present new and exciting opportunities for British businesses.

It is time to re-energise our national democratic institutions and re-engage with the rest of the world. This can only be done by exiting the EU.

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