In or out, your Euro-nightmare begins here

In or out, your Euro-nightmare begins here

Opinion piece (The Times)
Matthew Parris
31 May 2014

There are three years to go before a possible referendum on Europe, and already it’s impossible to know what to think

On Thursday I was offered a glimpse of the future. Like some Dickensian ghost of times yet to come, Fate took me by the hand and tiptoed with me through 2015. Then 2016. Then 2017. Three long years we surveyed, Fate and I. Gloomy and appalled we watched what may lie in store for Times readers, for me, and for those millions more of our fellow citizens who will be taking an thoughtful interest in our country’s direction.

Yes, dear reader, I was attending my first conference on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Or, to quote the title precisely: “In or out? How a referendum on UK membership of the EU could affect UK-located businesses”.

And it was awful. Reason fled; meaning turned to mirage; truth itself shimmered, shook and dissolved.

Europe, in or out? The heart sinks. Yet, in fact, this impressive day-long symposium held at the London School of Economics was never boring. Attention was held as the horror grew. We were being treated to a living demonstration of the death of objectivity: a dry run of the insanity that (assuming a 2017 referendum does take place) this three-year debate promises to become. Taking shape before a dismayed audience was the complete impossibility of ever reaching any conclusion. Crushed beneath a tottering heap of speculative claim and counter-claim, reason, even among the reasonable, began to die.

The conference was put together by The Continental Drift, an organisation whose participating partners were business and research groupings that appeared to share a hopeful view of Britain’s place in the EU. But the organisers had aimed for proper debate and a vigorous minority of the panel-members were robustly anti-EU.

I am unlikely ever to see again a more authoritative line-up of experience and expertise. The Times’s David Charter (Berlin correspondent and author of Europe – In or Out?) moderated one of the best discussions, involving two powerful Eurosceptics, the Ukip economist Tim Congdon and Ruth Lea, the political economist and former Treasury official. We heard, too, Lord Hannay and Sir Stephen Wall, who have been (oh, hang the titles) principal hand-holders to successive British prime ministers in European negotiations.

There was hardly anyone on the podium who wasn’t a tycoon, a knight, a lord, a professor or an über-boffin. We heard John Mills, said to be Labour’s biggest corporate donor, tell us why Ed Miliband should agree to an in-out referendum on Europe; and Lord Hannay comparing David Cameron’s referendum pledge with a man threatening to jump from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge unless his demands are met.

We heard Sir David Wooton, a former Lord Mayor of London, warn that businesses can move away but cities can’t; and businesswoman Helena Morrissey argue that Britain needs to take a “pulse-check” on the EU, which she thinks a fading power.

But what did we learn that was new? This is, after all, only the start of three long years of argument: the debate is surely not yet exhausted? And what did we learn that looked capable of clinching an argument? What anchors in reality, what figures, what numbers could anyone supply? Both within and outside the hall I sensed the silent presence of an audience already weary of propaganda and hype, and hungry for hard facts. But as the day drew on, the facts melted before our eyes.

Three impressions had a certain freshness — for me, at least. Few, even among the Eurosceptics, are now trying with much conviction to sell the attractions of a Norwegian-style “trade-only” deal for a Britain outside the EU. What Vernon Bogdanor called Norway’s “fax democracy” (in which a country has no place at the EU table yet still faces EU costs and regulations) sounded unsatisfactory for the UK.

Second, I had not realised that the financial services industry (at least as represented on Thursday) is not mightily fussed about the in-out question. Most of these voices sounded quietly hopeful that their sector could live with or without a British exit. And I was mildly surprised at the level of confidence that a British prime minister might bring some seriously useful gains home from the EU. Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform suggested these:

a) Letting national parliaments police “subsidiarity” (the things nation states decide for themselves) and “yellow cards” for Brussels-based intrusion;

b) Completing the single market; liberalising services and the digital economy;

c) Further tightening benefit rules for EU migrants;

d) Streamlining and reshaping a bloated commission;

e) Single-market safeguards to protect the ten non-eurozone members from the eurozone;

f) Entrenching member states’ democratic checks on “ever closer union”.

But where were the argument-clinchers? As facts and statistics were tossed on to power-point presentations, a sense of the incurable subjectivity of this debate settled on us. Civitas found a 3 per cent net loss in GDP as a result of EU membership, while the CBI found a 4 per cent GDP net benefit.

In fact, though, these figures themselves dissolve into mere assertions when, digging deeper,
you examine the assumptions that have to be made before a number can be posited.

Let me illustrate. Ukip’s Tim Congdon handed out his booklet showing, he told us, that the EU costs Britain “roughly 11 per cent” of our GDP. Half of this, he said, comes from the cost of EU regulation.

But what he cannot do, because nobody can, is give a figure for the cost of the British-made regulation that might (or might not) replace the Brussels-made regulation. Would parliament want rights of parental leave? Control of chemical food additives? Health and safety legislation? Product specification? Nobody can even guess how much EU-sourced regulation a future “unshackled” UK parliament would vote to replicate. The “cost” of EU regulation is anybody’s guess.

I left the conference, as I think most of the audience did, with the settled and dispiriting conviction that the economic argument for or against Britain’s EU membership will be impossible to frame convincingly, is unlikely to gain traction one way or the other, and in the years leading up to a possible referendum would confuse, exhaust and, finally, numb the voters.

I’m numbed already. And there’s three more years of this to go.