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. 

Photo: Getty
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.