Let me start with the single most important point of David Cameron’s speech – a point I expect the British media will hardly mention. He wants the UK to remain in the EU, he recognises it is vital to our economic interests to do so, and that these economic interests, our political influence worldwide, and our security, would be diminished by withdrawal. How refreshing, at last, to have a senior British politician say that.
Yet he also perpetuated one of the dominant myths about the EU: he talked about the relation between Britain and the EU, rather than Britain in the EU. This is not mere playing with words, this is fundamental. He talked repeatedly, in different ways, about decisions taken in Brussels. Yes – but by whom? The decisions may, literally, be taken in Brussels, but by the government ministers and MEPs of the member states, including those from the UK. It was ironic that he spoke (quite reasonably) about citizens feeling distant from the 'EU', given that this 'us and them' language helps create that gap. He also spoke about the mass of EU legislation, overlooking the long-standing practice by UK governments of 'gold plating' – adding considerably to EU legislation before putting it on the UK statute books.
Is Britain's attitude to the EU really because we are an island nation? The key issue, I believe, is the nature of Westminster politics, the whip system and the consequences of (almost) always having single party government. That means governments never have to compromise, or to seek consensus. In the EU, member states still have national vetoes over some key policy areas. In others, they may have lost a veto, but every government still has influence, because they are part of a collaborative policy-making process. Defending Britain's interests is a short-cut to failure. What is needed is promoting Britain's interests. As Mr Cameron acknowledged, some of his views are shared by other leaders. If he were to work constructively with them, he would be far more likely to win friends and allies in the debates to come. It is right to have a debate over which policy areas should be decided at the EU level by unanimity, or by qualified majority, or be national but, to be meaningful, this debate has to start by recognising the level of influence member states already have within EU structures.
Mr Cameron spoke about having a bigger role for national parliaments. Great – and the Lisbon treaty gave, for the first time, greater powers to national parliaments that could result in EU legislative proposals being withdrawn. He argued that countries should be able to choose to go faster or slower with integration. Great – and the Lisbon treaty introduced 'enhanced cooperation', designed precisely for this purpose.
Mr Cameron's speech contained two particular economic themes. The first is the importance to UK trade and investment of remaining in the EU. The second concerned competitiveness, how the EU is lagging behind and how "a new global race of nations is underway". Rubbish. It is not a race. It is not a zero sum game. The 2012-13 global competitiveness index shows five EU countries in the top 10, of which the UK is the lowest ranked. Three of the other four are even in the euro. China, by the way, is 29th, with 11 EU countries ahead of it. Competitiveness is down to economic factors that are, almost entirely, determined at the national rather than the EU level. That is how the competitiveness of different EU countries can vary so greatly. Competitiveness can and should be improved – but first you need to understand what it is.
I am delighted to see Mr Cameron state clearly that remaining in the EU is in our economic, political and security interests. I am puzzled why he wants to pursue changes which were brought in via the Lisbon treaty. I am bothered that he continues to use 'us and them' rhetoric. I am worried that his grasp of key economic concepts is a bit shaky. But if, despite this, he can engage constructively in debates over the next couple of years, finally we might have a prime minister who promotes, rather than undermines, Britain's interests in the EU. If, however, he feels he has to pander to the right of his own party, or to potential Ukip voters, then that noise will drown out his arguments about how important remaining in the EU is to the UK.
Robert Ackrill is professor of European economics and policy at Nottingham Business School.
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