John Mills is a donor to both openDemocracy and the campaign to leave the EU
As the debate on Brexit hots up it is increasingly clear that many of the issues in contention are generating a great deal of heat but not much light. So many of the assertions made depend on the assumptions behind them on which there are – quite legitimately – widely varying views.
Will every family in the country be £4,300 worse off per annum if we leave the EU, as the Chancellor alleges? Very probably not, but this does not stop a plausible case being made that it will if the markets all turn against the UK, as we were told would happen just before we left the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred, inflation fell and the economy started 15 years of unbroken growth.
Will the UK be safer in or out of the EU? Border control may be tighter if we leave. Liaison on anti-terrorism might be a bit more difficult but it is hard to see that it would be in anyone’s interest not to continue with the high levels of co-operation which are already in train. On balance, it is difficult with any certainty to see any clear advantage or disadvantage.
Would trade treaties with major countries with which we do not yet have them – China, India, Australia and the USA – be easier or more difficult to secure with the UK in or out of the EU? We are told that the EU would have more negotiating heft, and perhaps this is true, but progress is bound to be slower if the needs and interests of 28 countries have to be taken into account rather than one – as indeed it has been.
Would trade between the UK and the rest of the EU diminish if Brexit went ahead? As it is in everyone’s interest to retain free trade throughout Europe the answer is very probably not. There is, however, a possibility that the other EU countries would not play ball, but the worst that could happen then is that World Trade Organisation tariffs would be applied both ways. As these only average about 3.5% on industrial goods, this is unlikely to make much difference, especially if sterling falls a bit on the foreign exchanges, as many people think will happen. Trade in services may be a bit more tricky but we do pretty well on sales of services to other EU countries, as well as outside the EU, despite the many non-tariff barriers which are still there.
If we leave the EU, would we, like Norway, still be members of the Single Market and thus bound to accept free movement of labour as part of the package? Not necessarily. If we remain members of the European Economic Area, we would be locked into the EU’s free movement of people, but if, instead, we stayed outside the EEA and joined EFTA (the European Free Trade Association), we would then be outside the Single Market, as is Switzerland. No-one knows how negotiations might finish up but there is clearly a range of outcomes with different trade-offs which might materialise, some of which some people would welcome while others would not.
So don’t be surprised if lots of people feel confused by all the claims and counterclaims which fill the airwaves and our newspapers. Does this mean that there are no firm facts on which to base a view on Brexit? No – there definitely are some and really the case for Brexit lies in the hard facts on which there can’t realistically be any dispute.
First, we have a very heavy net contribution to the EU every year. The Office for National Statistics tells us that in 2015 the total gross figure was just under £20bn and the net figure, after all rebates and expenditure by the EU in the UK was £11.1bn. Lower figures are often quoted but these tend to be for the EU revenue budget only and not for other heads of expenditure such as capital costs, fines which are not in the budget and some CAP and aid payments.
Second, if we stay outside the EEA, we can secure much better control of who comes to work and live in the UK. Particularly with the rising Living Wage in prospect combined with the poor employment and remuneration prospects in much of the EU, we really need to contain immigration to a lower figure than the 330k it was in 2015 rather than to allow it to rise.
Third, the EU has experienced no growth in median incomes for nearly a decade, the euro is clearly in trouble, the Schengen agreement is under huge pressure, nearly 40% of the EU still goes on subsidies for agriculture, there are huge levels of unemployment, especially among young people. Do we really want to tie ourselves to a project which manifestly has so many downsides?
Fourth, there is very clearly both a democratic deficit in the EU and a widespread feeling that the political elite in the EU are being driven by two factors. Firstly, by the travails of the euro and secondly, out of conviction that in any case this is the right thing to do: to create a United States of Europe. This is not what the vast majority of the electorate want to see being created, not only in the UK but throughout the EU. Taking back control of our destiny by re-establishing the primacy of parliament is the way for us to get this done.
It is very clear where the vast majority of the UK electorate would like to be. We would like to have free trade with the other EU countries and we would like to co-operate with them in every way which makes sense – but on an intergovernmental basis rather than as part of a political union. How are we going to get there? We need to Vote Leave and then negotiate the deal we want. Would we achieve everything we would like? Probably not, but we would be able to get a great deal closer to what we – and indeed most other people in Europe, if they were given the choice – really want.