The benefits of British membership of the European Union are so profound and far-reaching that its opponents have to twist themselves into all kinds of knots in order to try and construct an argument against it. People from either side of the left-right political spectrum contort themselves spectacularly and defy all logic looking for an argument against the EU.
On the right, opposition to the EU from free market enthusiasts sees them argue instead for the imposition of new trade barriers. Membership of the single market eliminates not only tariffs but also non-tariff barriers (the regulation that replaces those non-tariff barriers is the cause of the free marketeers resentment against the EU). Outside the single market, Britain would be free to reimpose non-tariff barriers on imports from the EU, to the detriment of its consumers but to the benefit of domestic commercial interests. The EU would of course be free to do the same. Is it likely that such barriers would be imposed? Yes, it is.
The very same process that put those non-tariff barriers there in the first place – the desire to regulate the market in the interests of fair competition, environmental protections, workers’ rights, etc – would return. Even if such regulation is not intended to be protectionist (and often it is), it would still nevertheless tend to have that effect when the UK adopts a different regulation from the EU. And if the UK does not adopt different regulations from the rest of the EU, what is the point of leaving?
So, if the free market right is forced into advocating protectionism in order to justify leaving the EU, the left finds itself objecting to the costs. Britain can’t afford EU membership, they say, but what exactly are those costs made up of?
EU regulation is the source of fripperies such as maternity rights, health and safety law, workers’ rights, and consumer and environmental protection. Are those costs that the UK can no longer bear? Is the left really saying we should leave the EU in order to make workplaces more dangerous or to reintroduce formal discrimination against women?
The truth is that both right and left are wrong. The economic model of the EU is that of a social market, broadly capitalist but with a substantial range of social protections, too. The exact mix of free market and social protection varies from country to country and from time to time, and will probably never be exactly to anyone’s taste, but nevertheless it represents the overwhelming consensus of how Europeans want their economy to be. To oppose that social market model means to stand outside that overwhelming consensus, which is why the arguments against are so ridiculous.
Based on a speech by Richard Laming at the People’s Pledge rally in London on Saturday 22 October 2011. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.