The European Commissioner for Trade has spoken of his bewilderment and frustration at just how little most British MPs know about the European Union as the debate intensifies about the UK’s membership.
Karel de Gucht told The Independent: “It’s really amazing how little a lot of British politicians know about Europe. They should get better acquainted with it.”
He made the comments while warning that it would be “madness” and a “disaster” for Britain to leave the EU and put vital trade benefits at risk, possibly at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs.
Mr De Gucht, who is currently tasked with negotiating a free trade agreement between the EU and the United States, urged British leaders not to indulge in a “blame game” with Brussels for the UK’s economic and social problems. “It’s really amazing how little a lot of British politicians know about Europe,” the former Belgian Foreign Minister said. “You need decision on the basis of facts and figures and arguments, not on the basis of myths.
“Why don’t people tell the truth about the EU?”
Mr de Gucht’s strikingly combative remarks come as Mr Cameron is under pressure from his own backbenchers to bring forward his plans for a referendum on EU membership following Ukip’s success in local elections last week. Issuing the strongest comments yet from a senior EU official on the prospect of a British exit, Mr de Gucht said that such an outcome “would be a real loss for the European Union but for Great Britain itself it would be a clear disaster”.
In his role as Trade Commissioner – a post previously held by Lord Mandelson – the Belgian politician is currently leading negotiations for a landmark agreement to abolish all business tariffs between the EU and the US.
Arguing that this would benefit every household of four by an average of £466 a year and boost GDP by 0.5 per cent – and that a common language means Britain stands to benefit the most – Mr de Gucht said: “It would be clear madness to get out at this moment in time.”
He added: “If this deal were to go about it would result in jobs in the hundreds of thousands [across the EU], so we are giving you the best argument to stay in the European Union by negotiating this deal with the United States,” he said. Tarrifs on imports and exports between the US and EU currently stand at an average of 3 to 4 per cent, but it is hoped that a free-trade agreement could be finalised within 18 months – with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, recently calling it “transformational” and a “top priority for the Government”.
Richard Ottaway, the Tory chairman of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has called it the “holy grail”, saying: “We would look pretty dumb if we were leaving the EU just as the EU was signing a free-trade agreement with the US.”
Mr Gucht, 59, said that talk of rejecting the greater clout offered by membership of the biggest trading bloc in the world was “a little bit cheap,” asking: “Why would you do it alone when you can do it together and get better results?
“You have problems with employment, with budget deficits, with fiscal policy. A lot of the problems you are facing are homemade, they are not from Europe. You are not going to resolve your crisis by engaging in a blame game. Everybody has problems, but we are in a better position to solve them together.
“You have a central bank that has the kind of absolute authority and powers to do whatever is needed to get out of an economic crisis and nevertheless they do not manage to do so,” he said. “Don’t look for easy answers or easy questions because they are not going to solve them.”
Mr de Gucht also warned that politicians stoking public anger about the EU to avoid taking responsibility for the country’s problems – and false stories in the press – increased the chances of the UK leaving.
“We don’t want you to love Europe, love should be kept for personal relationships. But look at your own interests and ‘de-dramatise’ all this. I was reading a story that I was amazed by – it was about whether you could re-use jam jars for school fetes. Somebody was making jam for fetes but saying they are not able to do that anymore [because of EU regulations]. Why would we bother about that?”
Tory minister Ken Clarke’s decision to dismiss UKIP as “clowns” also came in for criticism from Mr de Gucht, who said that arguments by eurosceptics should be countered by facts and statistics showing the EU was the “best investment,” rather than indulging in insults.
“It’s a populist party, and during a crisis people prefer easy arguments and easy solutions,” he said of UKIP. “What you should not do is call them clowns, because then you are saying to voters you are voting for clowns, and the risk is the voter says: ‘So what? It’s my damn right to vote for a clown’.”
Mr de Gucht offered support for the Coalition’s economic policy, however, despite increasing feeling within the Eurozone that cuts to national budget deficits needed to be slowed to encourage growth in jobs.
“The European Commission is not saying austerity, austerity, austerity – you put emphasis on structural savings and on investment,” he said, but added that cuts to public spending cannot be delayed. “You cannot postpone it any longer. If we postpone it, we get into trouble again in another couple of years. On the other hand people are expecting there will be more stimulus and more investment for the economy – but where is the money? We don’t have the money.”
Following the revelations that many of the 580 people so far confirmed to have died in the recent collapse of a building in Bangladesh were working in factories producing cheap clothes for Western companies such as Primark, Mr de Gucht warned that retailers and the Bangladeshi government could face action from the EU if nothing is done to improve the conditions of workers – adding that shoppers should also consider where they are spending their money.
“Trade should have an ethical dimension,” he said. “There lies a responsibility with the clients in Europe. The big brands and retail companies have to take responsibility for their supply chain. That it would be difficult is not an answer for me. I will sit with them in the coming weeks and flesh out a code of conduct for companies that they have to subscribe to.
“The Bangladeshi government has to take up its responsibilities too as we cannot go and check the factories over there, so we are going to speak to them on the basis of a very clear-cut timetable [to achieve reform] and if not, I’m going to launch an investigation into Bangladesh because they are profiting from our Everything But Arms trade scheme.” This allows the world’s least developed countries to import and export without trade barriers on all goods apart from weaponry. “That could lead to its suspension, which is not something that I aim for, but we cannot go further as it is now. This is completely unacceptable.”
But he added: “On the other hand I think the customers should take a bit of responsibility. Everybody is now screaming scandal but we are very pleased with the cheap T-shirts. I don’t think people working for a whole month for $40 in unacceptable health and safety conditions, paying with their lives, is acceptable. I will mobilise the companies to do something about this.”