5 February 2016

Now is not the time to gamble with Europe


There is one basic problem with the European referendum. This is absolutely the wrong time to hold it. The world is full of confusion and risks. As there is no compulsion to hold a EU vote now, there is every reason for postponement. What will the Chinese economy be doing in six months‘ time? What will be happening in the Middle East? What about the oil price: $20 a barrel – $100 a barrel, or what? How will Putin react to an economic crisis? What will happen in Greece? Spain is a country beset by high unemployment, as well as the political and cultural factors which both created the Civil War and were caused by it. There are also the various nationalist movements. France is in the grip of high unemployment, economic stasis, tensions with the Islamic communities, and a collapse of confidence in the political class. Admittedly, the Italians have long since learned to do without a government, but how long can they go on doing without economic growth? Even Germany is looking must less happy in its own skin than it was six months ago. Above all, when will the refugee crisis end?

The Eurozone has survived for far longer than many of us believed possible. But the basic problems have not been solved. How can you have a common monetary policy without a common fiscal policy? It is not easy for Merseyside and Mayfair or Manhattan and Mississippi to share the same currency. But they at least have a common language and a common patriotism, plus sizeable fiscal transfers. None of that is true on the Continent. For the Eurozone to achieve long-term survival, there will have to be a common fiscal policy, which would require political union. Does anyone believe that the French would ever vote for that?

So in a world full of short-term and medium-term uncertainties, this is no time to hold a referendum. But as we are stuck with one, let us start with an obvious point. It is impossible to predict the consequences of Brexit. It would also foolish to rely on the Swiss and Norwegian precedents. We know that many Europeans would still be keen to trade with the UK. But it is equally true that Brexit would tear a hole in the EU just when the others are already feeling weak. There would be resentments. There is another point worth remembering; a lot of Europeans believe that they have a justified grievance against us. They claim that Anglo-American financial adventurism disrupted the world banking system and exacerbated the post-2008 crisis, while Anglo-American military adventurism has broken up the Middle East. There are profound differences of perspective between Britain and many of our EU partners. Brexit would exacerbate that. Equally, a weakened Europe would be a poorer and more unstable Europe. None of that is in Britain’s interests.

The problems would not only arise in Europe. Throughout most of the world’s financial centres, there would be incomprehension – and loss of confidence in the UK as a commercial partner. Just as this country is beginning to thrive, growth rates could come under threat. In view of all this, let us remember that wisest of maxims: ‘when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’ This is especially true when the change would be a leap in the dark.

There are those who argue that this will be a once in a life-time opportunity to deal with Europe. That is not so. There will be other Treaties. There will almost certainly be a crisis in the Eurozone. The notion that if we voted ‘remain’, we would be subservient to a re-invigorated EU revelling in federalising ambitions is just nonsense. The days of federalist self-confidence are over. After a ‘remain’ vote, we would be in a position to argue for reform and liberalisation. As it becomes clearer and clearer that the alternative is sclerosis, we could find  a hearing, and allies. After all, it is not in our interests that Europe should stagnate and founder.

The lawyers have a shrewd phrase: ‘further and better particulars.’ Before taking a decision of this magnitude, there ought to be lots of those. But we are condemned to a Referendum, so the PM must counter folly with calm. The Brexiters seem to be alternating between a microscopic examination of the small print and hysterical denunciations, as in the Daily Mail. Mr Cameron ought to ensure that the argument moves on to the wise middle ground of national safety, national prosperity and the national interest. A vote to leave would be an almighty gamble. As such it would be an almighty irresponsibility.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.