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Anthony Browne: Why we shouldn't leave the EU

Browne-31 Anthony Browne is a former Brussels correspondent for The Times.

The Tory blood is up, spoiling for a fight: we should pull out of the EU. A perfect storm is brewing across the continent - the euro is in crisis (I’m not holding my breath for apologies from the pro-euro brigade), talk of imminent fiscal union, new Brussels budget demands at a time of austerity at home, rising anti-European sentiment across the many member states, with parties such as the True Finns coming to power – and a new British Conservative-led government increasingly frustrated at how Brussels ties its hands. Enough, surely, is enough.

There are reports of several cabinet members wanting to pull out of the EU, along with many of the new Tory MPs. Public opinion, which has generally been supportive of remaining in the EU, is shifting rapidly – the opinion poll reported on ConservativeHome on Tuesday suggested voters would vote 2 to 1 to leave the EU in a referendum. It is no surprise that the shrewdest of our political commentators, Matthew Parris, wrote recently (£) that the plate tectonics are shifting, and leaving the EU could become a reality.

So let’s get real. The arguments for and against leaving the EU are finely balanced, but there is an overwhelming reason why Conservatives should not want the government to try to leave: it would derail everything else the government wants to do. I voted for this government because I wanted to reform healthcare, education and welfare, so we get the public services we deserve, to bring down taxes and to stop the inexorable growth of red tape and bureaucracy.  I didn’t vote for it because I wanted to pull out of the EU.

Don’t underestimate how all consuming pulling out of the EU would be. The referendum itself would be a political nuclear bomb compared to the AV poll’s little firecracker. Wall to wall coverage, taking up all the energies of government, blowing everything else out of the water for probably a year. It would pitch the Lib Dems against the Tories in one of the most fundamental issues for the country, and one they  are genuinely passionate about (unlike AV), and it is difficult to see the coalition surviving that. An imploding coalition wouldn’t lead to us leaving the EU, but to a general election where voters would be likely to punish the Conservatives for bringing the country into this mess in just two short years.

And the referendum would be the easy part – actually disentangling from the EU would be a hideous set of complex negotiations across pretty much the entire range of government functions.  We would have to negotiate, if we want to get the best possible arrangements with the EU afterwards – just pulling out unilaterally and refusing to talk about how things will work in the future would put us at a serious disadvantage.

So, if you want the government to do what it was elected to do, then don’t expect it to pull out of the EU. Personally, I think we should give EU reform a serious push, in a way that no government has previously done – and as David Cameron told the Spectator, the EU crisis could be an opportunity for that. Watch this space.


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