Last week the Prime Minister entered the debating chamber of the House of Commons for the last Prime Minister’s Question Time of the week to a rapturous welcome from MPs of the Conservative Party, each of them greeting him like a conquering hero of old. What had the Prime Minister achieved to deserve such a reception? He had promised the British people a referendum on membership of the European Union. Well, sort of.
The referendum will depend on a number of factors. The main one being whether or not the Conservative Party win an overall majority in the next election. At the moment they are in a coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats so a referendum in this parliament is never going to happen. The other thing that a referendum will depend upon is a re-write of the European Union’s rules to suit the United Kingdom. Which of the rules Cameron wants re-writing is not clear because he did not say which ones, although a favourite is removing the EU working time directive which bans employers from working their employees for as long as they wish.
The problem for the Prime Minister and his grandiose plan for an EU that fits Great Britain like a glove is that he will have to gain the consent of the other member countries to this and there is no guarantee that they will. Indeed I am willing to bet anybody any amount of money that the Spanish or French will tell Mr Cameron precisely where he can stick his idea of a pick and mix European Union.
The EU was initially formed as the Common Market in the aftermath of World War Two in 1957 with Britain joining in 1973 following two previous applications being vetoed by the De Gaulle French government. During that time many benefits of becoming a member of the world’s largest trading community have been felt throughout the continent with a trading zone worth currently £11 trillion, although the Daily Mail would not have you think so with their tales of over-paid meddling bureaucrats enforcing pointless rules about the standard length of bananas . It has helped keep the peace on a continent that had known nothing but war from the vikings to the Battle of Hastings, the Hundred Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars at the beginning of teh twentieth century. However its response to the genocide on its doorstep during the Balkan wars is a source of shame as it looked on feebly and helplessly until NATO bombed the Serbians to the negotiating table. It did though broker peace between Georgia and Russia during their brief war when Georgia’s desire to join NATO and Russia’s desire to prove a point to, who they deemed to be, its troublesome neighbour could well have escalated a regional dispute into something much more terrifying.
One of the main criticisms that Eurosceptics have of the EU is its cost and while there can be no doubt that it is overblown and can appear to be unwieldly its budget comes to 142 billion Euros which is just 1% of the wealth of each of its member countries.
Eurosceptics claim that if Britain withdraws from the EU it can still trade as normal with each of the member countries. This is unlikely to happen. Firstly there is likely to be a great deal of resentment from the remaining members to Britain withdrawing so will, in all likelihood, make things as difficult as possible. Bear in mind that already there is a great deal of resentment to the way Britain has behaved during the Euro crisis.
A withdrawal from the EU will also provide problems for businesses. Currently many businesses locate in the UK purley so that they can trade with the EU, a particluar example being the Nissan factory in Sunderland. Businesses can also apply for a trademark and have it recognised in all twenty seven member nations. A withdrawal from the EU would mean that they would have to apply in each of these countries separately.
Benefits of EU membership are not just limited to nation states or big businesses. Consumers have also benfitted. British shoppers can shop from anywhere within the EU without paying excise duty, EU regulation has led to a reduction in the cost of telephone calls with a reduction in the price of receiving a call, making a telephone call or sending a text message.
Napoleon once famously described the United Kingdom as a nation of shopkeepers. It is my belief that in making this non-announcement about Britain may or may not have a referendum at some point in the future David Cameron has hung out a “gone for lunch” sign outside Britain’s shop window. It remains to be seen whether countries and businesses will wait for Britain to re-open before deciding whether or not to invest.