David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum after the next general election, on the issue of our continued membership of the EU. The arguments for and against are both emotive, complex and controversial.
The EU is the world’s largest single free-trade area, home to 500 million people with a total GDP of over £11 trillion. No excise duties or tariff barriers raise the price of goods and services traded between member states. A common set of trading laws apply to all 27 member countries of the union. Thus the price of European goods (including UK manufactured goods) are held steady and relatively low over long periods of time. EU citizens travel freely and uncontrolled without visa restrictions within the union.
Before the present global economic crisis, over 2 million new jobs were created, and contributed £25 billion to personal incomes in Britain. The UK sells between 13 – 15% of its exports (mostly in the form of high-tech goods) to the EU, with approximately 3.5. million jobs linked directly or indirectly to this volume of export trade. Furthermore, the cost of our membership of this club is regularly exaggerated. The net cost is just over £8 million per annum, i.e. about half of our total GDP, or £125 per adult citizen.
It is not as if Europe wants us to leave; France and Germany recognise the advantages of Britain’s continued participation in the European project in order to agree sustainable energy, environmental and defence policies for the future. The CBI is in favour of the union in its present form. British voters either want us to remain within the Union or are indifferent to the issue. Both America and China have urged our continued membership, seeing us as their passport into the markets of Europe. The City of London reaps huge benefits from this reciprocal trade by providing the professional and financial services it requires to run smoothly.
So, what are the Euro-sceptics objections to our membership? Much of their argument chimes well with right-wing xenophobia as a reaction to globalisation, fuelled by immigration. States wrestling with problems of comparitive economic decline see their identity and soverignty threatened by powerful federal style unions. As far as Britain is concerned, migration to this country has produced net benefits in terms of highly qualified young people to our economy. Likewise, British emigration to the EU has provided high paid work to those who can speak a European language. Bureaucratic inertia (a serious problem in the EU) can be tackled from within the EU rather than from without.
Finally, Euro-sceptics point to the EU’s declining share of world trade (40% in 1973, down to 25% in 2013). In recent years the economies of America, Japan and Europe itself have all experienced periods of severe depression. The signs are that we are recovering, and that global trade will increase again. In any case, this is not a new phenomena. At the start of the 20th century, the British share of world trade declined as America and Germany overtook us industrially. In the 21st century, China and India will enjoy a far greater share of trade than the EU. But this is not a rational argument for us to leave the EU.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.