The UK is in the lucky position of having our cake and eating it. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty
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An EU explainer for the easily bored: where does the UK stand?

Frances Robinson continues her series on what we really need to know about the EU. This week: should the UK stay or should it go?

Age: We’ve been in since 1973. So, getting to that stage where it’s a little rude to ask.

Why did we join? All kinds of reasons, but the main one was being in a free trade bloc, coupled with a recognition that economic and political cooperation would maintain peace and prosperity.

Was there a party? The 1974 Tour de France came over for a stage on the newly-opened Plympton bypass. Grumpy customs officials held up cyclists before what one rider called “the most boring stage I’ve ever, ever ridden”.

Haven’t times changed! Yes, totally. The 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire was such a roaring success, the region is having its own standalone cycling extravaganza this summer. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome are cycling legends.

I mean the EU. A referendum would be unprecedented! Except for the precedent of the 1975 referendum, when 67 per cent voted to stay in.

Oh. What happened next? Gradually, over decades, it became a single market, an idea championed by the UK. This now consists of the free movement of goods, services, capital and people between member states. More countries joined. Some aspects of the single market got completed, others still need a lot of work. We got plenty of special treatment by carefully negotiating a series of carve-outs and exceptions. For some countries, it became an even closer union with the launch of the single currency.

What, like the rebate? Yes. In 1984, after epic negotiations, Margaret Thatcher won back part of our contribution, because we don’t benefit as much as other members from the Common Agricultural Policy (them there farm subsidies) – which still absorb a large chunk of EU spending. It’s based on a calculation which is very roughly two thirds of the difference between the UK’s contribution and what it receives back from the EU budget. The French don’t like it. Bof.

What else? We’re not in the euro, and we never have to be. We’re not in the Schengen* passport-free travel zone. While other countries can be fined for not complying with certain aspects of the stability and growth pact, we can’t. So basically, we get as close as any country to having its cake and eating it. Still, as EU legislation has expanded over the last four decades, we have had to apply an every-growing menu of laws.

Is that how it’s seen in Brussels? Put it this way. If the EU is a birthday party, we’re not asking for more cake from a position of being sat in the corner eating stale twiglets. We’ve eaten a massive pile of cake, nibbled the icing on France’s, and now we’re asking for more. And we don’t know what sort of cake we actually want, and we won’t say until after the next game of musical chairs.

Mmm, cake. Nom nom nom. The other guests still want us to stay. We’re not the only ones with a desire for reform. But we are the only ones saying we’ll leave if we don’t get what we want – and in life as at children’s birthday parties, threatening to take your toys and go home doesn’t make one tremendously popular.

Alright, let’s play nicely and renegotiate. OK, but be aware we’re talking about a renegotiation of rules affecting 28 countries, at a time of political turmoil, economic uncertainty and global instability. And there’s only a certain amount that can be achieved without changing the basic EU treaty law. And that, to use a technical term from diplomatic circles, is a massive ball-ache. Those in favour of the government’s approach say change has been talked about for a long time and the threat of leaving is the only way to jolt them into action.

That’s not what I heard. It’s understandable. At the moment, the EU is easily used as a “dog ate my homework” style excuse by British politicians for anything unpopular. As an aside, the education system barely explains British politics, let alone how the EU works, which would help.

LOL remember general studies A-level!!! Who does? As explained last week, British civil servants, MEPs and diplomats can continue to reform the EU... from within. That’s how we got so much cake in the first place.

Enough with the cake. OK. Everyone knows it’s serious: the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said he will “personally will take on the concerns voiced by the UK… no reasonable person can imagine the EU without the UK”, and various world leaders have urged us to stay in. Other EU leaders have made encouraging noises about flexibility – but not to the extent they end the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Well, look, all this depends on Dave and the election. Boris for PM! Boris knows a lot more about Europe than he lets on with his mop-haired buffoon act. His father worked for the commission, he went to the European School, and he was previously a reporter in Brussels. He says the Commission is expansionist, and that if that could be fixed, it would make most sense to stay in.

He’s probably just thinking about London. That’s kind of his job. According to CityUK, which lobbies for the banking industry, the EU is the biggest single market for UK exports of financial services, generating a trade surplus of £15.2bn in 2012 – that’s a lot of cash. The Lord Mayor of London (the fancy hat one, not Boris) has said if Britain leaves the EU a lot of banks could leave London.

I hate bankers.  OK, think about all the Minis made in Swindon and the Nissans from Sunderland... who buys them? Half of UK vehicle exports are to EU consumers and the sector employs over 700,000 people, according to a KPMG report for the industry. If we left the EU, there’d likely be an tarrif on exporting those cars to Europe. The report concludes that “continued EU membership is vital to this £60 billion industry and its long-term prosperity.”

I hate cars. Fine. Next week, we’ll talk about wine, cheese and cheap flights.

*Named after the village in Luxembourg where the agreement was signed.

 

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

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Jeremy Corbyn's speech on terrorism will do him more good than harm

The Labour leader's criticism of police cuts and western foreign policy will resonate with voters.

The election campaign, if there was any doubt, has resumed. In his speech responding to the Manchester attack, Jeremy Corbyn did not limit himself to expressions of sympathy and solidarity. He squarely targeted Theresa May on her home turf: policing and security.

The Conservatives' repeated warning is that Corbyn is a "threat" to his country. But the Labour leader countered that only he could keep it "safe". Austerity, he declared, "has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap." May, having been warned by the Police Federation while home secretary of the danger of cuts, is undoubtedly vulnerable on this front. Under Labour, Corbyn vowed, "there will be more police on the streets" (despite Diane Abbott's erroneous arithmetic), while the security services would receive whatever resources they need.

Corbyn swiftly progressed to foreign policy, the great passion of his political life. Though it is facile to reduce terrorism to a "blowback" against western interventionism (as if jihadists were Pavlovian dogs, rather than moral agents), it is blinkered to dismiss any connection. As Corbyn noted: "Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home" (the Tory-led Foreign Affairs Select Committee is among those who agree).That the former Stop the War chair has long taken this view absolves him of the charge of crude political opportunism.

Corbyn was also more careful than his pre-briefed remarks suggested to caveat his criticisms. He emphasised: "Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.

"And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre."

But he maintained his central charge: western intervention has made the world more dangerous, not less. "We must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working," he said. "We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism."

Though Corbyn's arguments have appalled Conservatives (and some in Labour), they are ones that will likely find favour among the public. Polls have consistently shown that most voters oppose western adventurism and believe it has endangered the UK. Corbyn's words will resonate among both the anti-interventionist left and the isolationist right (this is, after all, a country which has just voted to retreat from even its closest neighbours).

The speech, given at 1 Great George Street (in the room where Ed Miliband gave his resignation address), was marred by Corbyn's refusal to take questions. But it was unarguably well-delivered. "Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror," he warned in a pre-emptive strike against the Conservatives.

Corbyn's decision to give an overtly political speech four days after the Manchester attack is being widely described as a "gamble" or even a profound error. But the election will now rightly focus more closely on the issue of security - nothing should be beyond democratic debate.

Many of Corbyn's life-long stances, such as unilateral disarmament, do not find favour with the electorate. But there was little in his speech today that the average voter would contest. The Conservatives will hope to turn the heightened security debate to their advantage, ruthlessly quoting Corbyn against himself. But on this front, as on others, the Labour leader is proving a tougher opponent than they anticipated.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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