In the ongoing debate on the UK’s place in the European Union, it’s important to keep the facts in mind. On economic, political and social measures, Britain gains from being part of the EU. At the same time, reforming how the EU works to make it function better is essential if it is to achieve a sustainable future. The UK can and should take the lead in shaping the European Union’s course ahead.
Ever since joining the European Union (then called the European Communities) in 1973, Britain has seemed to have had a constant debate about whether to stay or go. The UK Government held a referendum on remaining in the Common Market in 1975, in which two-thirds of voters opted to stay in. These days, the prospect of another in/out referendum in or around 2017 looms large in the political discourse.
In any event, the European Union Act 2011 has ensured that a referendum must take place before the UK agrees any EU treaty change which hands significant powers to Brussels. While such a vote would not necessarily determine Britain’s future in the EU, it would certainly provide an opportunity for the electorate to express its attitude towards Europe. With eventual treaty change almost inevitable, this means that in the near to distant future, either in an in/out referendum or a treaty referendum, Britons are likely to have a vote on membership of the EU. As a result, people will have to decide whether they truly wish to pull away from Europe or if they want to embrace a European future.
Although the question may sometimes appear worn, the public can gain from the continuing discussion on the costs and benefits of EU membership. Reflection on such an important issue should be welcomed, particularly where it is based upon a dialogue of facts and coherent arguments. On the whole, Britain is better off in the EU on economic, political and social grounds. It’s in the UK’s clear interests to stay and to work for the changes it wants from within.
The economic benefits of EU membership are substantial, both in their breadth and depth. Britain sends around 50% of its exports to the rest of the EU, all without tariffs, quotas, duties or other non-tariff barriers. UK companies have full access to a European market of over 505 million people with a combined GDP of £10.6 trillion, allowing for EU-wide economies of scale. The internal market provides free trade in goods, but also free trade in services and movement of capital, allowing the UK to maximise its competitive advantage in services, such as finance, across the European Union.
Since barriers to market entry are substantially lower than they otherwise would be, British small and medium enterprises can also export their goods and services and establish operations in the EU with comparative ease. It’s clear that problems remain – EU regulations on SMEs are often excessive and not all areas of services are effectively open to competition – but these are prime examples where the UK can work for reform in the EU and significantly benefit from the results. At the same time, localities have better access to inward investment and consumers gain from uniform safety standards, expanded product choice and increased competition among businesses.
The political benefits to the UK are equally as powerful. Britons have the right to work, study or retire anywhere in the European Union. Figures from recent years indicate that up to 1.8 million British citizens live in one of the other 27 countries (with the UK, 28 countries) which make up the EU. British expats in the EU even have a say in how their communities are run, as they can stand and vote in local and European elections. Naturally, citizens from other EU countries come to the UK as well. Most of those who do come to work and are highly-skilled. Many others are students, who return home after their studies. All told, EU migrants in Britain contribute much more to the economy than they take out, as a recent UCL study confirms. The UK is not part of the euro and it won’t be, but it certainly makes it easier for Britons when travelling, buying and investing in euro countries.
On the world’s stage the UK can hold its own, but it also benefits from being in the more sizeable EU bloc. In trade deals with the rest of the world, a market of 505 million people has more weight than one of 64 million. This allows Britain to benefit from more advantageous trading terms with large and growing economies. Where EU countries agree on foreign policy, which happens much more often than one might think, the UK is part of a united European voice that stands up for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The UK needs strong and close allies in today’s world. Working together ensures that Britain’s support for universal values continues to be effective, as Europe’s relative importance in the world readjusts in favour of developing countries. Today the EU accounts for 30% of global GDP – it’s predicted by 2050 that share will fall to 15%. Geopolitical reality makes EU membership essential to Britain’s future.
The social benefits make the EU even more worthwhile. Britain’s already strong cultural and artistic links with the rest of Europe have flourished under the serendipity which the European Union provides. Both European and national initiatives promote greater transnational cooperation in academia, the arts and beyond. EU programmes such as Erasmus offer fantastic opportunities for young people to live, work and study in another country. Britain has always been open to the world, and being in the EU allows it to deepen its friendship with its neighbours while retaining its national identity.
Across this range of measures, Britain gains from its membership of the European Union. Its economy is stronger, its people are freer and its place in the world is enhanced. The EU is not about becoming one single superstate – it’s about countries working together in areas of common interest. The euro countries may integrate their economies and politics more, but Britain and other EU members won’t be part of that.
While Britain benefits from being in, the EU has much to improve and the case for reform, from the budget and the role of national parliaments to the functioning of the European institutions, is compelling. Reform of the European Union is infinitely more profitable for the UK than simply leaving. Britain is a strong moderating force for change in the EU, and it can and should push to make the EU work better. Britain is richer with a European future and it’s better off in the EU.
Shortened link: britainseurope.uk/20140704
How to cite this article:
Salamone, A (2014) ‘Britain’s best future is in the European Union’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 4 July 2014, britainseurope.uk/20140704