Leading article: We need rational debate on the EU, not hysteria


From the tenor of the current debate, you could be forgiven for wondering why Britain ever joined Europe at all. Fuelled by hysteria over the eurozone crisis, easy clichés about costly red tape, sclerotic bureaucracy and emasculated democracy are gaining ground, reducing the entire European project to nothing more than an affront to British self-determination and a drag on lively Anglo-Saxon economic growth.

It is high time for some balance. Contrary to the rhetoric, the benefits of membership of the EU are not difficult to find. Europe accounts for an estimated three million UK jobs, not to mention nearly 60 per cent of our exports and more than half of our imports. At a personal level, estimates suggest every household gains up to £3,300 annually. That's not all. There are also less quantifiable advantages, such as beefed-up consumer protection rules, the boost from free movement of labour, and the extra heft in trade negotiations from being part of the world's biggest single market.

With Europe facing unprecedented economic and political problems – and on the brink of momentous reform to resolve them – what Britain needs is a measured analysis of both the benefits of our place in Europe and the carefully calibrated compromises that go with it. Instead, the political class is descending into an all-too-familiar Punch and Judy show; and if such a sideshow was toxic in the past, it is potentially catastrophic now.

Last week's parliamentary debate over an in-out referendum is just the beginning. Thanks to its mishandling by David Cameron, the situation escalated into the largest ever Tory backbench rebellion over Europe. The Prime Minister then spent the rest of the week bandying vague promises about the repatriation of powers from Brussels (in the teeth of overt opposition from his coalition colleagues) in an effort to restore unity. Such a spectacle does not augur well.

Eurosceptics claim they are merely channelling the views of their constituents. And polls suggest as many as 75 per cent of Britons would like a referendum. But with anti-Europeans gleefully flexing their muscles for a trial of strength with a mistrusted leader and his pro-Europe coalition partners, the danger is that the detailed arguments are drowned out by petty politicking.

The co-opting of the euro crisis to the anti-EU cause is a similarly unconstructive sleight of argumentative hand. While it is true that the sovereign debt crisis has exposed flaws in the workings of the eurozone, that is not to say that the flaws were the cause of the problems. Nor is the severity of the situation any proof that the euro, let alone the EU, is fundamentally unworkable. Nor, even, does a positive stance on Europe imply there is no need for any reform.

While opportunists try to use the crisis as a cover for grabbing back powers, the real questions facing Britain and Europe could not be more serious. With the creation of a two-speed EU, Britain's place in the rump of 10 non-euro countries can only diminish its influence. There are those – such as Dominic Lawson on the facing page – who argue that Britain does not need to be at the centre of Europe to look after its interests there. The converse case was made by the Deputy Prime Minister at the weekend, when he wrote of the "economic suicide" of retreating to the policymaking margins.

That there are no easy answers is precisely the point. These are nuanced issues requiring the most careful, measured consideration. But any hope of sensible debate is in danger of being hijacked by a Tea Party-esque fundamentalist fringe, in shrill dialogue with itself. The decisions to be taken over Europe will have almost unimaginably far-reaching consequences for Britain. It is time to be level-headed. There is frighteningly little sign of it.