A coldly pragmatic case for EU membership

In his guest essay entitled “From a Reluctant European: A memo to the Prime Minister”, Janan acknowledges that Euroscepticism is not whipped up by the press, it is an authentic response to real problems – namely that Europe is “bossy, hidebound and increasingly removed from the world’s real motors of economic growth in Asia and America.” He also rightly argues that the UK’s relationship with the EU is transactional, not emotional or ideological. Like all transactional relationship, it’s right to assess benefits and costs on a rolling basis.

However, the UK does too much business with the EU to pretend its regulations do not matter, and there is currently no satisfactory model that would replicate most of the benefits the UK gets from EU membership while eliminating most of its costs; ultimately the single strongest argument in favour of staying in is the lack of a viable alternative.

Janan recognises that “a substantial revision” of the UK’s EU membership is not only desirable but also achievable, and he urges David Cameron to prioritise three areas in his EU renegotiation:

  • Financial Services: Given the importance of this sector to the UK economy, Cameron should aim negotiate something like a veto on financial regulation for the UK. The City would still be subject to EU laws in this area, but the UK would have special dispensation to block and amend those laws. While acknowledging the scale of the challenge, Janan argues that not only is the status quo “invidious” for the UK, a future in which the Eurozone is able to deploy its in-built majority to set rules which are detrimental to the City would be “intolerable”.
  • Social and employment law: Ideally, this would be an area that would be completely devolved back to member states and this ought to be Cameron’s opening gambit.
  • EU migrants’ access to benefits: While free movement has been economically beneficial, limiting access to non-contributory benefits for EU migrants are necessary to take the edge off popular resentment.

These are all welcome proposals and draw inspiration from proposals already set out by Open Europe including legally watertight safeguards to ensure that the UK is not overruled on vital financial measures, the repatriation of social and employment policies and the tightening of EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits.

Can a successful renegotiation ignore the democracy question?

Janan is right to push for an ambitious – as opposed to minimalist – negotiating mandate; the next two years could provide a once in a generation opportunity to test the limits of EU reform, and the more full and frank the negotiations, the more likely any referendum result will carry lasting democratic legitimacy in Britain.

Nonetheless, many would argue that any satisfactory negotiations cannot completely skip over issues such as the extent of EU involvement in areas like human rights and justice and home affairs, nor can they fail to address questions of democratic accountability and legitimacy as these will also be high on the list of voters’ concerns. At Open Europe we believe that economic and political reforms are not mutually exclusive – for example, giving national parliaments greater powers (such as a ‘red card’ over new EU laws) would help to ensure that decisions are taken closer to those they affect and could improve the quality of the proposals. However, Janan is also right to highlight the obvious risk: with the likes of SYRIZA and Podemos on the rise, would power-to-the people-style reforms leave us with a more liberal, outward-looking EU?

Either way, this essay is a valuable contribution to the debate about Britain’s place in Europe and worth reading in full.