This week, the members of the Backbench Business Committee in the House of Commons agreed to hold a debate and vote on calls for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The vote, which takes place tomorrow, is extremely ill-timed given the severity of the Eurozone crisis. Today EU leaders, including David Cameron of course, are holding emergency talks in Brussels on the financial crisis and measures that will keep another recession at bay. The UK has always had an awkward, difficult relationship with the EU but leaving the Union would be madness.
Without EU membership, the UK would become isolated from its neighbours. The EU is a global actor with 500 million citizens and by withdrawing its membership, the UK would no longer be part of the strong voice that Europe has on the world’s stage.
An exit from the EU would result in the immediate loss of the benefits the UK has from being part of the European Single Market. Free movement of good, capital, services and people would be gone overnight. Eurosceptics have advocated a ‘trade-only’ relationship with the EU, but realistically why should member states have to resign themselves to dealing with the UK on uncompromising terms that most likely will favour the UK? Being part of EFTA (the European Free Trade Area that includes Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein) is hardly the same as having full EU membership. Iceland itself is in the midst of accession negotiations and is expected to join the EU by 2014. Furthermore, the EU is at the dawn of a whole new generation of free trade agreements with other parts of the world – most recently with South Korea, a country with enormous economic potential. If the UK leaves the EU, it cannot participate in these new free trade agreements. Negotiating its own agreements with partners would take years.
The biggest dilemma facing the EU now is the Eurozone crisis. If a resolution can’t be found then the consequences of a new recession or a failed single currency would be catastrophic. The UK may not be a member of the Eurozone but as an EU member it has a responsibility to help find a solution to the crisis. The problems are simply too grown-up, too serious and too complex to be overshadowed by Conservative party backbenchers yelling for a ‘return of our powers from Brussels’ or ‘renegotiated terms.’ The rules are there to ensure members are on a level playing field with each other. Why should the UK receive preferential treatment?
European integration has helped to bring peace to Europe for the past fifty or so years. Historically, Europe is one of the most belligerent places on Earth and Europeans have fought each other for thousands of years. Countries that have positive relations with each other, close diplomatic ties and that depend on each other for trade, investment and other resources are simply less likely to go to war with each other.
Earlier this year, Parliament passed the European Union Act which ensures that no further powers will be transferred to Brussels without the approval of a nationwide referendum. Consequently, the whole debate on the UK’s EU membership and the justifications for renegotiating membership terms or withdrawing all together have never seemed more irrelevant.
The UK belongs in the EU. It has a shared history, culture and identity with the other EU member states. By leaving the club that it waited so patiently to join in 1973, the UK would undoubtedly be worse off. Times are tough and the EU is currently sailing through a terrifying storm, but now is not the time to abandon ship.