Should we stay or should we go?

Regional organisations around the world
Based on a talk by Richard Laming at the Henrietta Barnett School, 13 November 2006.

Thank you for the invitation to explain why Britain benefits from membership of the European Union and should remain a member. In this brief talk, I want to outline three things:

– What the EU is
– What it does
– And why I think it works

First, then, what the EU is.

The EU was founded in 1957 and, at the time was called the EEC and had only 6 member states. Since that time its member states have grown in number, as more and more countries have sought to join. It has expanded to the north, to the south, to the west and, most recently, to the east. From having been a relatively small group of western European countries, it now extends to all corners of the continent.

It is also worth knowing that it is not alone. While in many ways it is a unique organisation – I will explain some of these ways later – there are other organisations in other parts of the world that are following the same path. There is the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, there is Mercosur in South America, there is NAFTA in North America, there is the African Union. And at global level there are international institutions like the United Nations and the Kyoto agreement for fighting climate change.

Why is it that so many countries around the world are willing to give up a little bit of their independence and share some of their sovereignty with others? Why are they choosing to cooperate?

The reason is that in many ways they are increasingly interdependent. They have more and more in common these days. This is the phenomenon called globalisation.

Faced with globalisation they need to find common solutions to common problems such as the economy and the environment.

Here in Europe, the EU has been leading the way in both these fields. Let me give some examples.

First of all, looking at the economy, the EU has created the largest Single Market in the world. The idea behind the single market is that there should be common rules for businesses in all countries so that they can trade with each other more easily. The aim is that it should be as easy for a company based in London to trade with a company based in Paris as with one based in Birmingham. There will be all kinds of cultural differences that remain, of course, but there shouldn’t be any legal or bureaucratic ones.

By making it easier to companies to trade with each other, the economy grows and wealth is created as a result. The European Single Market has led to an increase in household income of about €5,700 (£3,819) over the past ten years, according to Commission estimates. It has done that by measures such as abolishing the customs forms that used to have to be filled in at borders – 60 million forms have been scrapped, needless bureaucracy swept away – which has in turn cut the costs of delivering goods by 15 per cent. Between 300,000 and 900,000 jobs have been created, thanks to the Single Market.

In the environmental field, too, different countries have worked together through the EU to solve common problems. It is obvious that pollution does not stop at national borders and that shared efforts are therefore required if there is to be an effective effort to protect the environment.

For example, migratory birds are protected by the Birds Directive. There is no point in Britain trying to protect rare birds from hunting if they are going to be shot as they fly south over France or Italy. Bird protection has got to be a common effort. The REACH programme is a far-reaching scheme to ensure that all the chemicals used in industry are safe for humans and for the environment. It takes an organisation as big as the EU to make such a programme possible. And the EU is also pioneering a scheme for emissions trading as part of the fight against climate change. Making companies pay for the costs of their own emissions will encourage them to reduce them.

If these are some simple examples of what the European Union does, I have got to explain next why it works. Why do we need something as formal and organised as the EU rather than a simple loose coordination between different countries?

I think there are three reasons why the EU works so well and has achieved things that mere cooperation never could. The Single Market was a dream for decades, but it took the European Union to make it a reality.

The first reason is that the EU is based on permanent institutions. Rather than drifting along on shifting alliances, the EU has:

– The European Commission – to represent the common European interest
– The European Parliament – directly-elected by the citizens
– The Council of Ministers – representing the national governments

These permanent institutions work together to ensure that all the different interests are considered and taken into account in taking decisions.

These decisions themselves are the second reason why the EU is a success. They are not merely political decisions but have the force of law. The prime ministers of the member states are not free to ignore the decisions that they do not like: the European Court of Justice has the role of holding politicians to keep their word.

The third reason for success is the fact that the EU is becoming increasingly democratic in the way that it works and takes decisions. The directly-elected European Parliament takes a bigger role in decisions now than it did in the past; the Council of Ministers is more open in the way it reaches decisions on European law; the European Commission is confirmed in office and held to account by the European Parliament.

That alternative to the EU would be decision-making without permanent institutions, without the rule of law, and without democratic input. There would be cooperation still between countries, but without these additional features. I think that would be worse, and not better.

Finally, against this background of what the European Union is, what it does, and why it works, I want to summarise the arguments for Britain staying in the European Union.

First of all, globalisation exists. It cannot be wished away.

Given that globalisation exists, countries have to cooperate in order to deal with it. The alternative would be to be swamped by it.

When countries cooperate, they should do so on the basis of the rule of law rather than simply relying on the word of politicians. And when those laws are made, that should be done in as democratic manner as possible.

Lastly, for Britain, the obvious place to start with international democratic cooperation are the countries with whom we have the most interests in common, namely the rest of Europe. If not the rest of Europe, there is nowhere else for Britain to go.

These are all reasons why Britain should stay in the European Union.

Richard Laming is a member of the Federal Union committee. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

View the Powerpoint presentation at 061113henriettabarnett

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