Parliament today is debating Britain's membership in the EU, following an online petition signed by over 100,000 people. Clearly, with the economy having ground to a halt, unemployment at a historic high, and the Eurozone in crisis, we have nothing better to do than navel-gaze, expose divisions within one of the governing parties, and thereby create further economic and political uncertainty. What strikes me in all this are some of the spectacular rhetorical feats of Conservative politicians when it comes to Europe. I have prepared a brief dictionary.
Bernard Jenkin MP: "It's about growth. The economy is not growing, and one of the reasons why the economy is not growing is ... a business survey showed that over £60 billions per year of burden of EU regulation rests on our economy now. (...) We used to have well below the average of youth unemployment, we're now on the average and youth unemployment is growing."
Translation: "I need someone to blame for this mess, and the 'previous government's legacy' line doesn't quite wash anymore. Who else is around? Ah, the EU! Quick, let's make up some numbers!"
Here are some questions I would like to ask of the Member for Harwich and North Essex:
- If the EU is the major reason why the UK economy is not growing, then how come the economy was able to grow in previous periods despite EU membership? How are other member states' economies growing?
- Similarly for youth unemployment, how come Germany has the lowest unemployment rate since re-unification, if it is the EU that is stopping our kids from being able to get a job? How come this staggering rise in youth unemployment coincides with government cuts in investment in skills and education for our youth, such as the increase of tuition fees and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance?
- What alternatives to EU membership is Mr Jenkin proposing? What impact does he believe they would have on Britain's trade with the EU and the British economy as a whole? How would they reduce this enormous "regulatory burden" he is speaking of?
There's the rub: if Britain wishes to continue trading with the largest single market on the planet, it is going to have to take the regulations that go with that. Surely, it is better to have a seat at the table when it comes to creating those regulations. And while we're making up numbers, the EU has some of its very own. Unsurprisingly, they show an increase in GDP and jobs directly attributable to the Single Market, and an appreciable decrease in "red tape".
Everyone: "Renegotiate our terms of EU membership!"
This can be neatly translated as "We want a pick-and-mix Europe. We will play nicely when it suits us and when we're directly benefiting from our membership but will refuse to lift a finger to actually contribute to the community."
Economists have a word for this kind of behaviour: it's called "free-riding"; see also "tragedy of the commons". There is a fatal flaw with this kind of thinking and it's this: if the UK "renegotiates the terms", other countries will either not allow that or want much the same thing for themselves. After all, if the UK can reap the rewards of membership without fully contributing, why shouldn't everyone else? You can see where this is heading. If no one wants to contribute, if everyone only cherry-picks the best bits for themselves, sooner rather than later there'll be no community left, and no benefits for anyone to pick.
William Hague MP: "There can be very small, narrow treaty changes, there can be major treaty changes. (...) I do not believe that it is in every instance (...) that you need to have referendum."
This is of course code for "We will give you a referendum when it's in our interest and we think we can get the outcome we want from it."
Ultimately this raises the question of whether referenda are a meaningful way to decide on complex constitutional issues such as electoral reform or EU membership. My experience from the recent AV referendum would suggest that they are useful only under certain conditions, which are unlikely to be present if and when it comes to a referendum on the nature of Britain's EU membership or future treaty changes. Referendum campaigns - especially ones which happen under time pressure, as any campaign on a treaty change would - tend to boil down extremely complex issue into five-word slogans. "Small change, big difference" and "She needs a maternity unit, not an Alternative Voting system", some of the key slogans from both sides of the AV campaign, are patronising, overly simplistic, lacking in substance. Now imagine having to reduce something like the Lisbon Treaty into a slogan. Far from increasing the level and quality of political debate, referenda like the one on AV or any we are likely to get on the European Union have a tendency to shut debate down. Only if political discourse can develop naturally, over and appropriate time span which allows for issues to be explored in depth - like for instance in the proposed Scottish independence referendum - are referenda a truly meaningful way of making political choices. So in some ways, this whole debate is a huge red herring.
William Hague MP: "...the return of other powers to the United Kingdom, particularly in the field of social and employment laws, things like the Working Time Directive, things of that kind."
Read: "Rights for workers? What is this EU nonsense? You must be joking!"
It always strikes me how the first (and as far as I can tell only) area of community competency that William Hague wants to repatriate is to do with social justice, equality, and protecting workers. He's been singing that particular song ever since he was Tory leader and came to speak at my school in Vienna about Britain's awkward relationship with the EU. Let's have a quick look at the much-maligned Working Time Directive, for instance. These are some of the things it regulates:
- It makes it a right to not have to work more than 48 hours in a week. Given that UK workers give their employers £29 billion of free overtime every year, this kind of limit seems sensible to me.
- It stipulates that you should get at least 11 hours' rest in every 24-hour period. Doctors, therefore, don't get to pull 36-hour shifts anymore. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be treated by a doctor who isn't about to collapse from exhaustion.
- It says that you should be allowed break at work. These can help prevent anything from deterioration of your eye sight and RSI to major injuries and fatalities. They also reduce stress. So the NHS doesn't need to spend money on treating these conditions. Sounds like a good deal to me.
- It regulates the amount of night work you can do, and the conditions under which you can do it. See prevention of health problems, and which doctor would you prefer to be treated by, above.
- It also says that you are entitled to a minimum number of days of annual leave. And while this can be inconvenient when you discover in August that you still have 20 days to take before Christmas, it also allows you to switch off and recover occasionally, further contributing to prevention of stress and other conditions.
If this is William Hague's main bone of contention with the EU, then I know what side I stand on. And if you are an employee of any kind - salaried, agency worker, occasional - then so should you.
The Europe debate is of course one that is never far from the surface on this sceptered isle. Yet bringing all this to the fore right now, as the EU and the Eurozone struggle to find the political will to overcome a huge crisis, and as it becomes increasingly apparent that the UK economy itself will need some sort of intervention to get moving again seems a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Mind you, it's entertaining enough.