As we gear up for the 2015 general election, EU issues are bound to feature prominently. Sadly, much of what is being said is hogwash, particularly when it comes to EU membership itself.
The Conservative Party has promised to hold a referendum on EU membership if it wins in 2015. UKIP has of course been long known for its opposition to the status quo. The party’s representatives take every opportunity to talk up the nefarious influence eurocrats have on the lives of ordinary people – from dictating our human rights to undermining our democratic traditions.
And now Nigel Farage is seeking to push for a referendum before Christmas.
The problem is, when British voters are told the choice is a simple in/out decision, they are being lied to. There will be multiple options on the table if the UK votes to exit. And to understand the implications of these, it is important to understand what being in the EU means for the UK.
There are a number of myths circulating about what membership of the EU really means and what would happen if the UK were to leave. Before the UK heads to the polls, we need to bust them.
1. An undemocratic institution
EU policies are decided by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. The first of these is made up of elected MEPs, when they bother to turn up (in three years on the Parliament’s fisheries committee, Nigel Farage went to just one of 42 meetings and his deputy, Paul Nuttall, attended two of 56 environment committee meetings).
The council is made up of national government ministers. If the Economics Council is meeting, it will be the chancellor of the exchequer or another senior finance minister attending. If it is agriculture on the agenda it will be the agriculture minister, and so on.
What this means is very simple – EU policy is produced by MEPs and government ministers. These are all people who are voted into office by the citizens of Europe.
As for the European Commission, the European commissioners (one from each member state) can be very influential in steering EU-level debates. But MEPs and the council hold the ultimate decision-making power so what the commissioners put forward as formal proposals has to reflect something of parliament and council opinion, otherwise it would not get through.
2. It works for Switzerland
If the UK were to exit the EU, it would lose its place at the policy-making table in Europe but it would not stop being affected by the decisions made at that table.
The thought of failing to negotiate any follow-up deal following a UK exit is so absurd as to be laughable – half the country’s exports and imports are with the other EU countries.
So what are the options? The UK could leave and do a Norway by joining the European Economic Area, or leave and do a Switzerland by negotiating a series of bilateral agreements, such as for trade, transport and the free movement of people.
In these cases, the UK would still need to comply with EU legislation, without having any say whatsoever over that legislation.
Switzerland has negotiated more than 100 bilateral agreements (what a bureaucratic nightmare that is) and none of these cover the free movement of financial services. If the UK followed this example in particular, one of the country’s largest and most important sectors would struggle to gain access to the world’s largest trading bloc.
So, while the choice to remain in the EU is clear, the multiple choices for opting out are anything but.
3. Meddling Brussels
A common complaint is that the UK is overwhelmed with legislation from the EU. Yet a recent House of Commons report estimated that, at most, just 12.8% of UK laws even mention the EU.
The percentage of laws that originate from Brussels will be less than this. For some reason, UKIP continue to quote the laughable figure of 75% despite this evidence. They are utterly, categorically, wrong.
4. There’s always China
But if the UK leaves the EU, some say, it can trade more with countries such as China. Freedom from EU rules would mean the UK could trade more with these fast-growing nations and not be so tied to its neighbours.
But another European country seems to be doing both with relative ease. Data I have extracted from the Eurostat database shows Germany’s exports to Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa are more than four times the value of UK exports to those countries – trade that represents a higher share of Germany’s total exports than the equivalent UK figure. Indeed, the UK even exports less than France to these countries.
Meanwhile, the UK exports more to Ireland than it does to China (twice as much in 2011 and 60% as much in 2013). Overall, about half of UK trade is with EU partners (imports and exports). And while the share has been declining recently, the absolute value of trade with European neighbours continues to rise.
5. Give us back our rights
Moving on to a common subject of eurosceptic ire – the European Court of Human Rights. This organisation attracts complaints from both the Conservatives and UKIP. It forces the UK to allow its prisoners to vote and meddles in decisions made by the national courts. Leaving the EU would free it from its grasp.
But love it or hate it, the fact is, the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the European Union – it is part of the Council of Europe – a completely separate organisation. Leaving the EU would have no impact on its role in UK law. This would be an entirely different discussion.
Shall we start a tally to see how often between now and the election somebody says something implying they believe the ECHR is part of the EU?
The truth isn’t out there
It won’t be easy to get informed, factual information from the media about the EU as the election campaign intensifies. There is clear evidence that some tabloids get the facts very wrong.
Recent examples include the claim that EU rules on energy efficient appliances were a threat to the Sunday roast and that taxpayer money is being used to subsidise bullfighting. But maybe we should not expect anything better from this section of the press.
On the other hand, we might expect reporting on the BBC to be a bit more accurate. Not too long ago, John Humphrys repeatedly gave an EU official a verbal battering because the EU budget has not been given a clean bill of health in about 20 years. Except that the EU budget has been passed by the auditors every year since 2007.
Ultimately, the EU is nothing like the multi-headed monster it is often made out to be. A real problem is that it is very difficult to understand – but that is precisely because the structure tries to maintain balance between 28 separate member countries. The truth about the EU is often very prosaic. The challenge, therefore, is trying to work out the truth from the deafening roar of nonsense.