Eurosceptics suffered a setback on Thursday as the latest government review of the European Union’s impact on the UK failed to bolster the case for withdrawal.
When the Foreign Office launched its “balance of competences” review, Eurosceptic Conservatives and businessmen hoped it would provide a “shopping list” of powers that should be returned from Brussels to Westminster. They wanted this to form the basis for David Cameron’s demands in the renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms before the in/out referendum he has promised for 2017.
But 14 areas have now been reviewed without recommending that a single EU function be transferred to the UK. Eight reports published on Thursday highlighted the benefits of EU membership in areas such as cheap air fares, football transfers, the funding of films, and improving environmental standards.
But they admitted there were “trade-offs” such as the Common Agricultural Policy; highlighted concerns over the cost of “green” EU measures on British businesses, and found agreement that the UK was right to maintain control of its own borders.
Pro-Europeans welcomed the verdict. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, told The Independent: “It is very clear on the balance of evidence that the single market is good for Britain and one of the elements of that is the free movement of labour. It is one of the achievements of Margaret Thatcher to have negotiated that and other freedoms. It is disappointing that some of her political descendants have backtracked on that.”
Alisdair McIntosh, the director of the pro-Europe think-tank Business for New Europe, said: “The reports are a timely reminder of the real facts: that British businesses overwhelmingly believe that they benefit from the single market.
“The debate about Britain’s future relationship with the EU needs to be based on the evidence of those who deal with the rules and sell to Europe on a daily basis, rather than the views of those with a particular axe to grind.”
But Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of the Eurosceptic group Business for Britain, said: “The review is looking increasingly like a bureaucratic whitewash. The voices of people with legitimate concerns about the EU have been marginalised in favour of the testimonies of groups that take a similar line to civil servants in Whitehall. The simple truth is that business people in the UK are crying out for a much better deal from the EU.”