As a young Conservative, by age rather than affiliation, I was strongly opposed to the European Union. After all, our ancestors had fought wars to defend this country against the military incursions of our continental cousins. Our economy was strong, our laws clear. As it still does, to a lesser extent, Britain was the primary power for commerce. The world's capital for law and finance. What were we to gain from paying in billions of pounds into a union whose political aims were far from subtle and which seemed intent on dictating everything from the shape of our bananas to how many hours you could work?
There didn't seem to be a point. But there is.
The eurosceptics will tell you that the EU is still riven by corruption, its accounts still unsigned by the Court of Auditors and its appetite for ever more stringent regulation still unchecked. They will offer up hopes of an island which can be built again on the strength of international trading relationships and a country which can innovate and excel if only it were unshackled from the bonds of EU membership.
They will screech and wail, as Professor Tim Congdon recently did, about the cost of membership - estimated as high as £150bn per year.
What they won't do is make the positive case for completion of the single market. What they won't do is to explain the double counting scandal of how much UK-specific regulation would have cost us in the past thirty years of membership and twenty years of the single market. Would we, for example, have really not regulated for ever safer motor vehicles and tighter emissions standards for cars? Would UK politicians have ignored the public's demand for food safety standards and greater employment protections? Faced with an ageing population and a lack of skilled tradespeople would a British government really never have looked to open up our borders to the benefits of immigration from Eastern European countries?
If our politicians really would have done none of these things then we'd all be the poorer for it. Not just because our legislature would have failed to do to the private sector what it should i.e. incrementally raise the bar for the benefit of all. They would have failed because our standards wouldn't have kept pace and our product would have been unsaleable in the rest of the world.
Yet this is the scenario we now face. The eurosceptics offer up a vision of the UK as the next Norway or Switzerland. Yet even UKIP supporters would have to concede a) Norway already complies with EU regulation but its position outside the Union means it has no say in influencing that regulation b) Brussels, and indeed many member states are fast losing patience with the Swiss. That model is broken and the alternative would leave us with all the cost and none of the influence.
Ultimately though the opportunism of the Labour party and the apathetic platitudes for the EU of politicians such as William Hague and David Willetts betray the great opportunity that is before us. Leaving aside - if possible - arguments about human rights or the social chapter, completion of the single market offers the entire continent a way out of economic disarray and offers us a golden opportunity. Imagine a UK-based financial services firm able to offer pensions, savings and protection products to consumers from Dublin to Riga. A manufacturer in the Midlands able to hire the best workers from a pool of 400 million souls to produce product sent from Lisbon to Budapest.
Is the EU perfect? No. There are no systems of government that are. Problems are only emphasised when trying to reconcile 27 different cultural, legal and political systems. There have been, and there will be, things given up in the task of creating a 'more perfect union'. The prize is immense. A truly single market made up of some of the richest nations on earth. The alternative is to be sidelined, to become the inheritors of a nation that is nothing more than a footnote in history. Now is not the time to slide, stroll or amble towards an exit from which there can be no return on favourable grounds. Now is the time for the prime minister to roll up his sleeves; fight to reform the EU, fight for completion of the single market and in so doing fight for the true interests of the UK.
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