Globalist Perspective

Why Britain Should Stay in Europe

Would Britain be better off economically and politically outside of Europe or in?

Credit: Miloje/Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The UK has — until recently — traded more each year with Ireland than it does with Brazil, Russia, India and China put together.
  • In many cases, Eurosceptics blame the EU for the actions of European or other international institutions that in practice have nothing to do with the EU.
  • The UK government estimates that every British household "earns" between £1,500 and £3,500 every year thanks to the existence of the single market.
  • 33,000 people work for the European Commission. There are more than 82,000 people who work for Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs.
  • EC directives are not Brussels diktats, but regulations that a British government's officials have agreed to, approved of, and signed off on.

A recent YouGov survey found overwhelming support in Britain for the idea of holding a referendum on EU membership. A plurality of 49% say they would vote to leave the Union, while only 28% would vote to remain.

I would like to say to them: Don’t do it.

Let me be 100% clear right at the start where I am coming from on this subject. I am Polish — from the Solidarity generation that helped bring down the Soviet empire. After studying at Oxford, I went to Afghanistan, to report on the anti-Communist resistance there.

I have lived in the United States, working for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. I am a fervent believer in free markets. Lady Thatcher acknowledges me in her book Statecraft.

I represent a government that has won plaudits for its financial rectitude. Our finance minister, Jacek Rostowski, is a former member of the British Conservative party.

In other words, I tick every box required to be a lifelong member of London’s most powerful Eurosceptics’ club. And yet, contrary to the fashion in this country, a Eurosceptic I am not.

I believe in the logic and justice of the modern European project. And let me be clear: My country, Poland, will do its utmost to help that European project succeed.

Yet, while Britain gave me refuge and an education when I needed it, I think the country today is vulnerable to several myths about the European Union — myths that I would like to try to dispel once and for all.

Myth No. 1: Britain’s trade with the EU is less important than its trade with other regions.

In 2011, the Britain’s bilateral current account deficit with China was £19.7 billion. It ran a deficit with Russia, too.

In other words, Britain’s commercial success clearly lies in Europe. Roughly half of the UK’s exports go to the EU. The UK has — until recently — traded more each year with Ireland than it does with Brazil, Russia, India and China put together.

Britain’s trade growth with the new EU members is even more dynamic. Between 2003 and 2011, British exports to Poland have increased three times.

Myth No. 2: The EU forces Britain to adopt laws on human rights that are contrary in spirit to British tradition.

The rulings that British politicians object to come from the European Court of Human Rights. But that tribunal is not a part of the EU system. It is an institution of the Council of Europe, a noble British creation that predates the EU.

Here, as in so many other cases, the Eurosceptics blame the EU for the actions of European or other international institutions that in practice have nothing to do with the EU.

Myth No. 3: Britain is bankrupting itself by funding Europe.

The supposedly monstrous EU budget is roughly 1% of the GDP of all members of the EU. By contrast, public spending in the UK amounts to nearly 50% of country’s GDP.

And Britain’s annual net contribution to the EU budget is around £9 billion. Though it depends on the year, the British contribution is on average similar to France’s and less than Germany’s. That amounts to less than £15 per British citizen and is five times less than this year’s interest on the national debt.

Moreover, some of that money comes back home. For example, British transport and infrastructure companies have profited enormously from EU cohesion fund investments in Central and Eastern Europe.

That improved infrastructure then provides direct gains to exporters in the UK, because higher levels of prosperity in those member states mean new markets for British companies.

The UK government itself estimates that every British household “earns” between £1,500 and £3,500 every year thanks to the existence of the single market.

That alone amounts to between five and 15 times of the UK’s net budget contribution per household. It’s a bargain.

Myth No. 4: The UK is drowning in EU bureaucracy.

It is true that 33,000 people work for the European Commission, but they serve an entire continent. By comparison, more than 82,000 people work for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, the UK’s tax collection agency.

In Poland, a country of 38 million, we have 430,000 bureaucrats — and we do think it is too many. But Spain — similar in size to Poland — has almost three million. In contrast to any of its members, the European Union is a slimmed-down operation.

Myth No. 5: The UK is drowning in EU legislation and nasty directives coming from Brussels.

We all have a good laugh when we hear about the “banana directive,” or “euro-sausages.” But these are not the fault of the European Commission. Usually, they are proposed by particular member states who are trying to protect their former colonies or national products. And they are always negotiated with other states.

Directives, in short, are not Brussels diktats, but regulations that a British government’s officials have agreed to, approved of, and signed off on.

In any case, laws inspired by Europe account for only a fragment of what the British Parliament passes. House of Commons research shows that only 6.8% of primary legislation and 14.1% of secondary legislation have anything to do with implementing EU obligations.

Myth No. 6: The European Commission is a hotbed of socialism.

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Whether on Open Skies, rules governing public assistance to business or — most prominently now — Europe’s energy market, it is the EU that has helped to dismantle national monopolies and prevented national politicians from subverting rules of competition.

Myth No. 7: EU regulations prevent hardworking British people from working longer hours than continentals.

The average Pole works 40.5 hours per week, the average Greek works 42, and the average Spaniard 38.1. The average for all EU27 is 37.2 hours per week.

The average for the UK? 36.2 hours.

Myth No. 8: EU proposals for pesticides legislation would ban gardeners from using coffee grounds to deter slugs.

Pesticides sold commercially need approval under the rules but products which are used primarily for other purposes, such as coffee, are specifically exempted. Like so many EU scare stories, this one is simply invented.

Now that we’ve busted eight commonly heard myths, let’s look at the more substantive arguments.

British Eurosceptics seem to have two different positions. Some want out, but not entirely. By replacing membership with a negotiated free trade agreement, they argue, the UK will be better off.

Because Britain’s market is too valuable for the rest of the continent to ignore, they say, the British government could negotiate a trade deal that would preserve all the advantages of membership in the single market, without any of the political and financial costs.

My answer to that is: Don’t count on it. Many European states would hold a grudge against a country which, in their view, had selfishly left the EU.

While the UK is an important market for the rest of the EU, accounting for about 11% of the rest of the EU’s trade, British trade with the EU is 50% of the country’s total trade. No prizes for guessing who would have the upper hand in such a negotiation.

Moreover, any free trade agreement would have a price. In exchange for the privilege of access to the single market, Norway and Switzerland make major contributions to the EU’s cohesion funds.

And let’s not forget that they also have to adopt EU standards — but without having any say in how they are written. Never mind that, at the moment, Norway’s net contribution to the EU budget is actually higher, per capita, than Britain’s.

So think hard: The EU is a market of 500 million people who enjoy the highest average standard of living in the world. According to the IMF and the World Bank, Europe’s GDP is about 2.5 times than that of China and nine times that of India. Does the UK really want to lose its privileged access to that market?

But there is, of course, a more political argument advanced by the Eurosceptics as well. Some argue that the UK will probably be better off by leaving the European Union, but even if it isn’t any losses are worth suffering for the sake of regaining international freedom of maneuver. In short, it’s better to be Canada than Illinois.

My answer to that is yes, the UK out of the EU would have more freedom of maneuver, in a number of significant respects. But the UK would also be less powerful and less free.

Certainly, Britain would lose its influence in many international forums. By negotiating as one bloc in world trade talks, the European Union gives its members, the UK included, a powerful and united voice to use when speaking to China and the United States.

If the UK exits, it loses that. Britain standing alone would suffer not only on a multilateral level, it would not command the same kind of bilateral attention in, say, Kuala Lumpur, Lagos or Bogota.

What about Washington? At the moment, interlocutors know that British officials speak on behalf of London and have an influence to shape decisions taken in Brussels on behalf of the whole continent as well. Standing alone, they won’t be so interesting.

In the end, of course, it is the UK’s leaders who need to decide how best to use their influence in Europe. The EU is an English-speaking power. The single market was a British idea. A British commissioner runs our diplomatic service. The country could, if it wished, lead Europe’s defense policy.

But if it opts out, nobody should expect Europeans to help anyone in the UK wreck or paralyze the EU. No one should underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century.

The UK was never occupied. Most other countries on the continent were — and they will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again.

It is not difficult to see why. Poland wants to be with Germany and France as partners, leading a strong, democratic European political-economic space. We do not want to be a buffer between Western Europe and a less democratic Eurasian political-economic space dominated by Russia.

More importantly, we believe the eurozone will survive, because it is in its members’ interest for it to survive. The leaders of Europe will step up operational integration at the European level.

The new institutional arrangements within the EU will be different, but eventually they will be strong. They will work because Europe’s leaders want them to work.

One final point that has me especially perplexed: The Marxist lecturers at those Balliol tutorials in the Oxford of my time taught me the term “false consciousness.” They used it to describe an ideological superstructure is out of sync with the economic base.

It pains me to see that Britain today is living with a false consciousness. Its interests are clearly in Europe — and it is high time for the country’s sentiments to follow the path of where its interests lie.

Britain is famous through the ages for its practical good sense and policies based on reality, not myths. We hope it will return to this tradition soon.

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About Radoslaw Sikorski

Radoslaw Sikorski has served as Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2007.

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