The alternative to being in the EU is not being in the EU

David Cameron proclaims that he can state definitively and with certainty what remaining in the EU will mean, but that what leaving means is ill-defined. He demands that those advocating Leave owe it to the British people to spell out in detail what alternative to being in the EU they have in mind.

Well, he’s clearly quite wrong to claim he can be certain what remaining means. He couldn’t possibly claim the meaning of being in the European project since the 1975 referendum could have been stated definitively and certainly in 1975. Does he claim it was certainthat MEPs would start to be elected, that the Warsaw Pact would collapse, that Germany and Italy would agree to share a currency, that China would grow faster than France for decades or that home-grown Islamist terrorists would now  be seen as a greater security threat than nuclear war? It’s nonsense.

But let’s set that aside, for as it happens I can state what a Leave vote means with perfect clarity. The alternative to being in the EU is notbeing in the EU.

I suspect that advocates of Remain will consider this an unsatisfactory answer. They will demand that I spell out what trading arrangements Britain would have – will it be a Norway option, a Swiss option, a Turkey option, a Canada option, a WTO option, or something else (as explored in a government white paper out today)? To which I reply: Balderdash! This referendum is not about a choice of trade deal. The ballot paper will contain no mention of the CETA or the DCFTA or the CER or the CSSTA. The choice will be to remain in the EU or to leave the EU. The alternative to being in the EU is to not be in the EU.

Advocates of a Leave vote, the press and the British public more generally should not be seduced by the proposition that the EU is some kind of trade deal and the alternative is some other kind of trade deal.  The EU is not a trade deal at all.

For one thing, the EU is not mainly about trade – but let’s ignore that for the purposes of this discussion. For another, the EU is a decision-making executive body, not an intergovernmental decision forum. But let’s ignore that as well, and choose to magick ourselves back to the circa 1991 world so much EU discussion anachronistically resides in. In that halcyon time, the EU (it was actually the EC, but let’s stick to EU) – the EU could, let us pretend, be regarded as an intergovernmental decision-making forum. But the EU is, in that sense, not a static deal over trade and commerce and regulation. Rather, it is a process by which the UK and other countries decide how trade and commerce are to be regulated.

Thus to compare the EU to some trade deal is to compare apples and pears. The EU is not a deal. It is (insofar as it is about trade at all) a means by which deals are made and policed. If we leave the EU we will be choosing no longer to make and police our trade deals in that particular way. The alternative to making our deals through the EU is for the UK to make its deals without doing so via the EU (e.g. for itself).

All of this is something of a mercy, for trade deals are terribly dull technocratic affairs that only nerds such as myself find interesting, and which, when they are cut barely make page 5 of the financial pages.  Did you even know the EU had a trade deal with Korea or was about to ratify one with Canada or didn’t have one with Japan? Would you have cared before this referendum came up? Trade deals involve lots of detailed give and take on small tedious points, and it’s absolutely ridiculous to pretend advocates of Leaving the EU should have pre-negotiated all such deals in advance.

Perhaps at some point in the future we might switch from doing our trade deals ourselves to doing them via some other decision-making forum (or, in fact, executive body) akin to the EU. But we can’t even start to ponder whether we might want to do that or what other countries might want to be in it with us until we stop being in the EU.

So, dear advocate of Leave, next time you are challenged about what alternative to EU membership you have in mind, you answer should be clear. The alternative to being in the EU is not being in the EU. It really is as straightforward as that.

What is there in Cameron’s EU renegotiation package that could allow a long-standing Eurosceptic to campaign for Remain?

I’ve detailed before how the Conservative Party voted against the last three Treaties (Lisbon, Nice, Amsterdam) and fought four elections in a row (1997, 2001, 2005, 2010) promising to repatriate significant powers from the EU.  If you were a Conservative that believed in that long-standing position of the Conservative Party, is there anything in Cameron’s EU renegotiation package (the “new settlement” for the United Kingdom in the European Union) that you might feel had addressed your concerns such that you could now campaign to Remain?

One perfectly honourable possibility would be that you had always thought that it would be better to stay in the EU than to Leave, imperfect as the EU-UK relationship was, even without change.  In that case renegotiating to achieve certain reforms might be desirable, because it would improve the deal.  But it would not be decisive on the question of whether one should stay or leave.  Perhaps quite a number of long-standing Eurosceptics were of this ilk.  They might be happy with the renegotiation as it is, or they might be disappointed, but either way it won’t change what they think should, at the end of the day, happen in the Brexit referendum.

But there is another group of long-standing Eurosceptics who have taken the view that renegotiation was vital for it to be either viable or acceptable or both for the UK to remain in the EU.  My sense of Conservative politics was that this has been understood as the mainstream position in Conservative circles for perhaps 15 years or more.  Over that time, the view as to how much needed to change and how much we could get might have ebbed and flowed, but I would surmise that many a Conservative coffee morning or chat down the pub between Conservative mates has taken it as given that the central point of demanding renegotiation was that we could not stay in the EU long-term without it.

For many of those in that position, it might not have taken much, even if they would ideally have liked more.  They are, after all, Conservatives and by nature disinclined to change things if they seem to be going okay.  Has Cameron given long-standing Eurosceptic Conservatives, of the sort that were never altogether against EU membership but felt things needed to change if we were to stay in, enough to provide a fig-leaf for their Eurosceptic consciences, to make them feel they have an excuse to say “OK.  It may not be perfect, but let’s stay.”?

What could that something be?  He’s negotiated an agreement whereby the European Union can tell the UK whether it has an emergency in its welfare system that might justify a restriction on immigration.  Was that something Eurosceptics ever asked for?  Doesn’t it rather sound like an extra power for the EU instead of some return of powers to the UK?  Indeed, I suggest that once the EU is given the power to declare that some country’s welfare system is officially “in crisis” that will be a power used in a number of ways to extend EU influence.  For example, if the EU can declare that Greece’s or Portugal’s welfare system is officially “in crisis” that may allow it to trigger provisions in new pan-EU unemployment insurance or pensions systems or to trigger stricter austerity targets.  This is more Europe, not less.

The agreement includes a long ramble about how “ever closer union” does not mean that powers cannot flow from the EU back to Member States, but does not return even one power to the UK, even at the point we were threatening to Leave.  If not now, when?  Doesn’t that rather sound like the UK agreeing formally that there’s nothing fundamental wrong at the moment?  Was that what a renegotiation was supposed to result in?

The agreement re-badges the already-existing “orange card” a “red card”, whilst tweaking it slightly. What that means is that a majority of national legislatures (e.g. House of Lords or Commons or the French senate or the German Bundestag) can at least slow down EU decisions. Setting aside the bureaucratic implications of this, why would that be desirable from a Eurosceptic point of view? For the red card to happen, most EU governments (e.g. Prime Ministers and Presidents) would have to be voting in favour of a measure (so it passed at the Council of Ministers), but most national legislatures vote against. Some member states have constitutional systems more like the US, where legislatures might, for example, be controlled by a different parties from the government. But in the UK’s case, the Commons and the government will virtually always have exactly the same view, since it is the Commons that picks the government. The House of Lords, on the other hand, will have one vote equally with the Commons in the red card system. So this “red card” system would be likely to reduce the influence of the House of Commons relative to the House of Lords. It would also be likely to reduce the influence of the UK since, as the UK is a large country, the UK government has a higher weight in the Council, via QMV, than the Commons and Lords will in the red card system, where every country has the same voting weight. We will find that, insofar as the red card operates at all (which may mean never), it means measures the UK wants and has been able to push through via QMV then get blocked by Parliaments in other countries. Was that something UK Eurosceptics ever asked for?

The agreement says that the UK won’t be forced to participate in bailing out Eurozone states.  But it wasn’t forced to bail out Eurozone states in surely the greatest Eurozone bail-out crisis ever.  The only one we bailed out was Ireland, and no-one forced us to do that.  Was there some Eurosceptic who thought that, even though we weren’t forced to do it in this great crisis we might be in the future?

The agreement says that EU businesses outside the Eurozone can’t be discriminated against.  But that was already the rule in the EU — so much so that the UK fought and won a major court case at the European Court of Justice, only a few months again, arguing precisely that certain European Central Bank rules (about clearing and settlement — but the details don’t matter for now) was discriminatory.  No serious Eurosceptic surely believed that EU laws and regulations were allowed to be biased against UK firms?

Many Eurosceptics had indeed complained (often quite wrongly, as it happens) that the EU is a source of huge additional regulatory burdens for UK business.  The agreement states that the EU will try to reduce such burdens.  But that’s what the EU already said it did.  So, again, no change.

As far as I can see, there is nothing — literally nothing — in Cameron’s agreement that would allow any Eurosceptic that had taken the view that the UK could or should only stay in the EU if its relationship were reformed to feel that that job has been done.  That’s pretty remarkable, if you think about it, because as I say for many (if not most) such folk it wouldn’t have needed much — if only to tempt them to feel it might be worth giving it a go and perhaps leaving ten years hence instead of now.

The question then, is: How many “Eurosceptics” were really all along folk that hoped our EU relationship might improve but we should stay nonetheless, as versus those that thought we could only stay if the relationship changed?  I guess we’ll find out very soon.