Leading Article: To be or not to be in Europe?

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WE NEED to talk about Europe. Speculation that factions of the Conservative Party want Britain to consider pulling out of the European Union reflects more than just in-fighting. It is indicative of a deep-seated uncertainty in the party, and the country at large, as to whether membership has on balance benefited Britain.

The risks and opportunities that would come with departure are impossible to quantify: it is hard enough to draw up a sensible tally of the costs and benefits of membership now. But one can make a start. Food prices would probably be lower once the Common Agricultural Policy was removed. Taxes could also fall as Britain ceased to be a net contributor to the EU budget. Some European legislation is costly to industry, and that burden would be lightened.

Britain runs a trade deficit with the other EU states; there is no reason to expect that would fall. Exporters would perhaps be able to find new opportunities outside Europe, but would endanger existing markets. A new trade agreement - tricky to negotiate - would be required. Foreign investors would have to reconsider their position and British plants in EU states would be treated like those of the US or Japan. With British ministers no longer arguing the case for free trade, European protectionism might increase, to the detriment of ourselves and our neighbours.

British political influence in European capitals would diminish. Given that the US increasingly sees Europe as a single entity, our position in Washington would also be undermined. True, we would be free to revive ties with the Commonwealth, and would, of course, remain in Nato. Yet, without British influence, Europe would move more rapidly towards a defence identity of its own, one that reflected French priorities rather than Atlantic alignments.

How would we see ourselves? Opponents of membership regard departure as a liberation that would enable the country to rediscover its national identity. They believe that the influence of Brussels would be removed from our 'nooks and crannies'. Yet, surely such an approach amounts to little more than an isolationist pursuit of not just a lost past, but a past that never was. European ties are not just the essence of modern Britain: they have for centuries been at the core of our nationhood. To withdraw from the EU would be a decision to lock ourselves in a dark cupboard with old nightmares.

Many people will be horrified that anyone should even try to calculate the plusses and minuses of remaining in the European Union. They are wrong. It is precisely because there has been so little public discussion of the costs and benefits of membership, and by extension non-membership, that so fundamental a question has regularly resurfaced over the past 20 years. It is both short-sighted and dangerous to pretend that this issue can be left to be fought out between the various Tory factions. If it matters for Conservative activists, it should matter much more for everyone else.