It is truly remarkable to hear the discussion around an EU referendum at this particular moment in time. As the global economy is dealing with problems of Herculean proportions, as the British economy is at the verge of a depression, a small number of nationalist, right-wing politicians and the tabloid press are obsessed with trying to remove the UK from the biggest single market in the world.
Never before has Britain’s membership of the EU been as important. As we fight for market share in an increasingly globalised and competitive world, being part of the biggest trading block offers us clear negotiation advantages. According to the FCO the UK is benefiting already from EU Free Trade Agreements. The recently signed South Korea Free Trade Agreement alone is expected to save European exporters £1.35 billion annually in tariff reductions. It is expected to benefit the UK economy by about £500 million per annum. The EU is also negotiating Free Trade Agreements with India, Canada and Singapore. Completing all the bilateral trade deals now on the table could add £75 billion to Europe’s GDP.
In a time when exports are imperative for the well-being of our economy, being part of the EU’s single market gives our exporters access to 500 million customers across Europe, creating jobs and growth at home. At the same time we are afforded a seat around the table where the common rules of that market are decided.
As a member of the EU the UK gains also in foreign policy terms, has more influence in international forums, like climate change talks or world trade rules, and is a more attractive partner for our American friends.
So it beggars belief that the prime minister and others toy with something as important as the country’s membership of the EU. It is clearly a game of political football, where all parties try to score goals against each other, using the EU question as a ball. But this is highly irresponsible and it does not serve the national interest. It only placates a minority of nationalist MPs and a handful of newspapers which, as the Leveson Inquiry has so clearly demonstrated, have their own agenda when it comes to the EU.
It also contributes to a sense of uncertainty; markets, global investors, our international partners (not least the US) are looking closely and perceive this tendency towards isolationism with concern. Leading figures in the City voiced fears last week that talk about leaving the EU can only damage one of the most important British industries.
The irony is that the prime minister does not want to leave the EU. Nor the majority of Tory MPs, who might dislike the EU but understand the economic benefits that come with it. Even Fresh Start, the eurosceptic group of MPs, accepts that all other available alternatives, including the Norwegian, Swiss and EFTA model, pale by comparison to full EU membership and do not suit Britain. But what they suggest instead, a nebulous and poorly defined re-negation of British membership, is impossible to materialise. In many ways what they are asking for means the unravelling of the single market.
What is to stop other member states from calling for exceptions from core elements of EU legislation? There are member states that wish to protect their national champions from EU competition rules, others that would like to raise barriers to imports. These are all things that will harm the single market (and British interests). So such re-negotiation is not possible and will push the UK towards the exit, something they have admitted they do not wish to happen.
So here we are, engaged in a pointless debate about something that can only harm the national interest. What politicians from across the political spectrum should be doing, what they should have been doing for a while in fact, is engage the electorate about what EU membership actually means.
Instead of allowing the debate to take place on the front pages of tabloid papers or be high-jacked by shadowy vested interests, they should be leading the discussion, not least during local, national and European elections. Openly, fairly and in a manner that aims to inform, instead of grand-standing and trying to score cheap political points, for internal political consumption, before or after EU summits.
The British people rightly want to be involved in what British membership implies. They are not eurosceptic, they do not want to leave the EU. Their appetite for a referendum is born out of a frustration that for far too long their elected representatives have not discussed with them the rights and responsibilities, the many benefits and inevitable costs that emanate from being a member of the EU. The sooner we make that conversation part of the normal political discourse the quicker the debate around EU membership will become a normal political debate and will start focusing on how to make the EU work even better and deliver even more for citizens in all member states. Until that happens we will remain stuck in this perpetual and populist discussion about whether to hold a referendum or not.
Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK