The Euro-enthusiast lobby has joined battle - one that Euro-sceptics won't win without a Business for Britain campaign
By Paul Goodman
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Since the collapse of the pro-Euro campaign, Euro-sceptics have been arguing with a vacuum. Euro-enthusiast politicians and big business leaders alike have been wary of entering the lists. Both have the Euro-sceptic papers in mind. The latter, if they are Conservatives, are fearful of de-selection or non-selection, and the former - given the anti-capitalist shift of mood since the banking collapse - are terrified of being given the Fred Goodwin or Stephen Hester treatment.
This is a reminder of the Euro-sceptic shift of the media since the 1975 referendum. The Sun, Mail, Telegraph, Times and Express have long been critical of the EU, but all have at least a foot in the Out camp. Pro-EU sentiment is thus confined to low-circulation, centre-left publications such as the Guardian and Independent, plus the Mirror and the Financial Times. The BBC is the country's only reflexively pro-EU big media player.
It was also in its way a response to the question I asked on ConservativeHome some eighteen months ago - namely, why are pro-EU Tories so shy of making their case? This boils down to two big arguments, one about risk and one about self-image - or, if you like, who we think we are. I do not agree with the risk argument (in an In/Out referendum, I would vote to leave). However, not all of it can simply be wafted away with a wave of a Euro-sceptic hand. To my mind, the back-and-forth goes roughly like this:
- Yes, it would preferable to have a Swiss or Norweigan deal than our present membership terms. But the Euro-enthusiast campaign is going to have fun with both. The Swiss have open borders with most EU countries under Schengen, so we would not control ours again under their model. Norway is also a member of Schengen, and pays an EU contribution of, scaled up to British terms, about 7 billion Euros.
- Yes, if we left the EU we'd be able to agree our own trade deals, such as the one Switzerland is negotiating with China. But it's impossible to say whether we'd get better terms trying to negotiate our own deals than we would with others as part of the EU bloc - and whether the process would be faster or slower. The Euro-enthusiasts will prey on the uncertainty.
- Yes, Britain could always go to the WTO. But WTO judgements take time. And in any event they don't offer entry to the single market. The Euro-enthusiast campaign will tell anyone who cares to listen that some British manufacturers - such as the car industry - could face a tariff of over 5%. It will also raise questions over the future of the free movement of goods.
- Yes, if we left the EU - or at least the reach of the court - we'd be free of the Social Chapter (on which Fresh Start is concentrating attention) and a mass of burdens on business. But while most voters don't like regulation in principle, many of them cling to it in practice. It will be all too easy for the Euro-enthusiast campaign to paint its Euro-sceptic opponents as wanting to make it easier for your boss to fire you.
- Yes, there is no reason why investment shouldn't flow into an independent Britain. But it's more likely to if such a Britain deregulates its economy - which, as I say, is not an attractive proposition to all voters. Most exporters to EU countries like the certainty the single market gives them, and the Euro-enthusiasts will paint a frightening picture of what would happen were Britain no longer in it.
- Yes, other EU countries have no economic interest in a trade war with Britain. But some politicians on the continent are alarmed that their regulated economies would be undercut and outperformed by a deregulated British one. In these circumstances, politicians don't always act rationally. The Euro-enthusiast campaign will make hay with the possibility of Britain effectively being excluded from the single market.
Now, it may be that all this statement-and-riposte is beside the point. Perhaps the federalising drive of the EU core will render most of it out of date, and Britain will eventually end up as part of a new Northern European free trade bloc, alongside the Baltic States and Switzerland. Or perhaps we could get a better deal than either Norway and Switzerland - the have-your-cake-and-eat-it option championed (after some mazy wandering) by Boris Johnson.
But any event, I believe that if we left the EU everything these difficulties would resolve themselves fairly swiftly. None the less, the main point is: I can't know - and nor can you, dear reader. Nor can Boris, nor Douglas Carswell (who set out the shortcomings of the single market in yesteday's F.T), nor Nigel Farage...nor anyone else. The CBIF will exploit these uncertainties ruthlessly.
My view remains that a renegotiation referendum would probably be won and that a withdrawal referendum would probably be lost. But it's now evident that if one happens at all), it will be an In/Out poll - double or quits. Earlier this week, Peter Kellner sketched the fear factor compellingly, and noted that there is already some shift in the polls back towards support for EU membership.
To date, Euro-sceptics have been pounding bunkered opponents with heavy artillery. From now on, they will be brawling in a hand-to-hand scrap, in which detail will be scarcely less important than the big pictire. Given the decline in the reputation of politicians, their views will carry far less weight than in 1975. I've said it before and say it again (and Allister Heath makes the same case today). Euro-sceptics can't win without a Britain for Business Campaign.