Our parliament’s first business when MPs return this September is the European Union (EU) Referendum Bill, to provide for the forthcoming vote on the UK’s membership of the EU. Many supporters of the European project characterise the potential for the UK to exit (or Brexit) from the EU as the UK turning its back on the world. An independent UK, so the argument goes, would become a country of ‘little Englanders’ despite hundreds of years of global engagement, and would somehow become inward-looking overnight. We are historically one of the most outward-facing countries in the world, so why would taking back control over our laws, our money and our borders lead to loss of influence? This does seem rather unlikely. The UK would continue to engage and trade with our European partners. We would chart our own course just like the other 168 countries that are not part of the EU. This includes countries much bigger than the UK and many much smaller. We would be a bilateral partner of the EU and with other EU member states. British influence outside of the EU would be much enhanced. The EU limits its members’ freedom to develop ties with other nations. The EU lacks agility when it comes to adapting to changes in global markets in a way that would enhance competitiveness, so taking back control of our relations with other countries would be a big advantage.
The UK would regain its right to representation on the host of international bodies that are increasingly the source of the rules that the EU then imposes on Britain. Rather than having a tenth of a say over the EU’s final implementation of these regulations, the UK would have direct influence over them from the very start. In terms of trade, back in control of our own policy, we would regain our own seat on the World Trade Organisation, where we are currently represented by the more protectionist EU. According to the think tank Business for Britain, 72 per cent of US investors and 66 per cent of Asian investors would prefer the UK to have a looser relationship with the EU. We could speedily establish free-trade relations with faster growing economies like the US, Canada, China and India. Countries like Switzerland have such agreements already. The only reason we cannot do that now is because the EU controls our terms of trade with the rest of the world. The UK trades a higher proportion of GDP than most EU economies, and is also now increasingly exporting to non-EU states.
And we would be free from EU regulation that undermines our global competitiveness. Our financial services sector and the City of London represent one of our most important industries. Together, they contribute 22 per cent of UK wealth. The EU does not demonstrate much love or understanding for this sector. The voting in the Council of Ministers is dominated by countries who have little or no equivalent, so increasingly EU regulation does not suit us.
This does not mean the UK will suddenly cease complying with many perfectly legitimate regulations concerning our carbon footprint, workplace standards or safety. The UK could not expect to export into the EU any product which does not comply with EU product standards, but as in other exporting nations like Japan and the US, such regulation would only apply to exports to the EU (less than 10 per cent of GDP) rather than to the entire UK economy. The UK is a member of the United Nations Security Council and a leading partner in NATO. Why should the UK be paying to replicate an embassy network and the role of NATO through the EU’s External Action Service and through the Common Security and Defence Policy? Why is the EU setting its own standards on military equipment when NATO is already doing this, and has been for a long time? In control of our own defence and foreign policy, the UK could reinvigorate our bilateral relations with all countries, restore the primacy of NATO and re-secure influence with our primary defence and security partner, which is the US.
The ‘yes’ case in the EU referendum is not enhanced by the Calais crisis, which supports the free movement of goods and people in the EU. Better security at Calais and other continental ports is one response, but one which can only address the downstream symptoms of the crisis. The French argue that the UK should implement French-style ID cards. Our lack of ID cards makes it easier for clandestine migrants to access public services and to find jobs in the UK. But how do they get into France without ID cards?
UK membership of the EU has not prevented this crisis, nor has the EU got an answer to it. In fact, the EU makes the Calais challenge so much worse because the Schengen Agreement signed by 26 European states has made most of the EU frontier-free. This policy is now a threat to European security. An individual can land on the Mediterranean Coast and travel to the English Channel unimpeded by any border checks. The UK requires national control to be able to deport illegal migrants more easily. Moreover, the EU’s blanket policy of non-return (to safe havens) of those arriving in Kos and Sicily illegally is just encouraging people trafficking.
The fact that our economy is growing and that English is the most widely spoken language is the biggest pull factor. There would be little purpose in ID cards, while Europe controls so much of our immigration and asylum law (particularly in the field of human rights). Our influence with the major emerging economies would be enhanced if we did not have to discriminate against their nationals in favour of other EU nationals.