THE BLOG

Why I've Changed My Mind About Brexit

23/03/2016 11:23 GMT | Updated 24/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Bust, bloated and bureaucratic, Europe is in dire need of reform. To my mind, the pros and cons of the UK's 44 year membership of the EU have always been finely balanced. But now the weaknesses in David Cameron's supposed 'EU reform deal' have finally persuaded me that it's time for Britain to leave.

Signing up to Brexit represents a significant change of heart. Until recently I believed that when it came to terms of trade agreements with the rest of the world and access to a huge market of customers, investment and business opportunities, it was better to be "in" than "out."

Far preferable to reform I argued and press strongly for radical revision of our EU membership. The EU budget is too big. The UK requires greater control over employment laws. And as the Business for Britain campaign has argued, we should be pushing to exempt the 95% of companies that don't export to Europe, from burdensome EU regulation.

With hindsight, however, I was wrong - not about the need for reform, but the belief that reform was possible. Expecting the EU to change voluntarily is like expecting North Korea's Kim Jong-un to vote for democracy. And our "once in a lifetime opportunity" - to quote David Cameron's own words - to force it through has fallen short. Badly.

Cameron's "deal" to secure Britain's "special status" in the EU's 28 nation bloc is not a good one as a recent analysis by BBC News showed.

Take sovereignty - a key issue in my view: Cameron's aim was to provide Britain with an opt-out from the EU's cornerstone aim of driving an ever closer union of the people of Europe so it will not be drawn into further political union in a "formal, legally binding irreversible way".

What he got was a commitment to exempt Britain from ever closer union written into the Treaties at the time of their next revision, with a red card mechanism to block or veto Commission proposals if 55% of national parliaments agree. With the red card mechanism unlikely to be used/strongly reliant on the UK allying tactically with other member states, this represents a half measure that falls too short of the UK winning back control of its affairs.

In terms of economic governance, Cameron wanted clear acknowledgement that the Euro is not the EU's only currency in order to guarantee that countries outside the Eurozone are not materially disadvantaged, plus protections against steps to further financial union being forced on non-Eurozone members.

What he got was a reminder from France that Britain would not win any "exceptions to the rules of the EU" around regulation of the City and a grudging recognition the EU has more than one currency without acknowledging "multiple currencies."

With competitiveness - a key concern for SMEs - Cameron wanted a goal for reducing the "burden" of excessive regulation and extending the single market. What he got were promises to set burden reduction targets in key sectors "where feasible." However, promises like this have been made before and despite this little changed.

Cameron's failure to secure a good enough deal is one reason for my change of heart. A second is the poor calibre of the current "in" versus "out" debate - in particular, the "in" campaigners' apparent readiness to resort to scare tactics and personal attacks. They're treating voters as if we're all stupid.

Yes leaving the EU involves uncertainty - we'd be the first country ever to do so. Even so, many now predict that while Brexit could lead to short term economic fluctuations, in the long term, any negative impact will be limited.

According to The Week magazine, a study by the think-tank Open Europe, which wants to see the EU radically reformed, found that in a worst-case Brexit scenario the UK economy loses 2.2% of total GDP by 2030. This compares to the recent recession when GDP dropped by 6%. However, Open Europe says that post-Brexit, GDP could rise by 1.6% if the UK negotiates a free trade deal with Europe and pursues "very ambitious deregulation."

Without a doubt, the vote on the day will be a close one.

In a recent survey of its members by the Federation of Small Businesses, 42% said they were either undecided about how they will vote or have decided but could still change their mind. Over half of those surveyed also said they feel they don't have enough information to vote in the referendum.

These figures serve to highlight that both sides of the debate must stop using the referendum as a political football. Instead responsibility should be handed to a politically neutral body - an Office of Budget Responsibility equivalent - to provide voters with an authoritative, objective analysis of the pros and cons of staying versus leaving. The EU referendum is a once in a lifetime opportunity - it's time the leaders of both "Remain" and "Brexit" treated it as such.

Frances Dickens is CEO and co-founder of Astus Group

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