What would it mean for Britain to leave the EU?

Talking about an EU referendum now is the wrong thing, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

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

 

A press room is seen through an EU flag during a European Summit. Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.