EU referendum: Can the EU be improved by Britain voting to remain?

The big EU questions: The EU debate so far has been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until the end of the referendum, we are running a series of question-and-answer features that will try to explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way

John Lichfield
Thursday 23 June 2016 20:13 BST
David Cameron and the president of the European Council Donald Tusk talk during an EU negotiation earlier this year
David Cameron and the president of the European Council Donald Tusk talk during an EU negotiation earlier this year

The Leave camp says Britain will be treated as a pushover by other EU countries if we remain. The Remain camp says we could lead Europe. Who is right?

No country can “lead Europe” – not even the Germans. But Britain has had enormous influence in Brussels since we joined in 1973. This influence has waned in recent years, partly because successive governments have focused on opt-outs and, increasingly, the ejector button.

How has Britain influenced the EU?

The creation of the single market, the enlargement to the east, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the tougher EU attitude towards fair and free competition without hidden barriers or subsidies – all of these were British crusades in their time.

In France, the hard left now sees the EU as an Anglo-Saxon capitalist conspiracy, diverted from its original humanist aims. In other words, they think Britain has had too much influence in Brussels.

We have, of course, lost several arguments. The creation of the euro is the obvious example; the creation of the open-borders Schengen area is another. Some countries may now wish they had listened to Britain.

Even when the others have gone their own way, successive British governments have been quite successful in negotiating opt-outs and safeguards. There is no reason to assume that would change.

Is the EU of the future not likely to be built around the eurozone, leaving us on the periphery?

Yes, that is a danger. It was partially addressed by the pre-referendum concessions won by David Cameron. It is now formally accepted that the euro “ins” should not impose policies that damage the euro “outs” – especially in access to the single market.

All the same, if the eurozone survives and other countries join, we will find ourselves neither fully in the EU, nor fully out. In a sense, that is what Britain has always wanted: a partial commitment, like being an overseas member of a golf club. This status has been formalised by the “Cameron Package” and its acceptance that the Treaty of Rome’s objective of “ever-closer union” does not apply to Britain.

Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission in Brussels

Just how much weight does Britain have in the negotiating room in Brussels, or in the parliament chamber in Strasbourg?

In the Council of Ministers, Britain has 29 votes out of 345 (the same as Germany, France and Italy). In the European Parliament, Britain has 73 MEPs out of 751, but MEPs never vote as a national bloc.

The figures, however, tell only part of the story. Success in the EU is partly about having clever officials who defend their national interests – and, of course... ahem, ahem... the common European interest – in the endless, pre-ministerial negotiations. Britain has usually been well served by its civil servants.

Success in the EU is also about building alliances with other countries, something we also used to be good at. We have often been marginalised in recent years by what has – rightly or wrongly – been seen by others as a negative and preachy attitude.

If we vote Remain, will Britain be friendless – a semi-detached pushover?

Not necessarily. Our apparent lack of commitment to the European idea has sometimes led others to discount our view and go their own way. On “big-ticket” items such as the euro, we have lost out to the Franco-German axis.

A British decision to stay in the EU could open a new chapter. The Germans value Britain’s presence as a counterweight to the French. The French value us a way of diluting German influence. The Dutch and Scandinavians often see eye to eye with us. Equally the East Europeans on some issues.

If we renew our membership vows, even in semi-detached form, our voice could become stronger.

Could we “lead” the EU, as some in the Remain camp suggest?

It is absurd to suggest we could “lead” the EU. An “overseas member” does not become captain of the golf club. All the same, there are many areas in which we could change the agenda to benefit Europe as well as Britain.

In what sort of areas could Britain change the EU for the better?

As a born-again (although semi-detached) EU country, Britain could revive the efforts to extend the single market to services such as insurance or information technology. This would benefit EU consumers and benefit Britain, which has a very competitive services sector.

Service companies would have the right to set up a subsidiary in other EU countries and sell services across EU borders.

Britain could also lead the flagging efforts to make regulation in the EU lighter and better. Previous British efforts in this direction were easily dismissed as a form of hidden Euroscepticism.

Britain could also be more European than the Europeans. We could propose, for instance, such an obvious border-squashing initiative as a European air-traffic control system creating a single European sky, reducing costs and delays for airlines and passengers.

Which areas of EU policy will never change?

The principle of free movement of people, as David Cameron found out, is untouchable. It is one of the core commitments that make the single market acceptable to poorer nations. There is no reason, however, why Britain should not push the EU towards a more coherent system of controls on welfare migration or health tourism.

The principle that EU law is above national law is also inviolate. It is this principle which most infuriates the leading figures in the Leave camp. Anyone who takes a purist and narrow view of national sovereignty should certainly vote Leave.

It is the principle of supranational EU law and institutions that make the single market and the European Union possible. Take them away and you are left with an EFTA - the failed efforts at a Europe-lite, which Britain promoted in the 1950s and ’60s.

William Hague has pointed out a Brexit might unleash nationalist forces across Europe

And how might the EU change if we voted to leave?

That is an important question.

Much of the debate in Britain assumes the EU will carry on regardless if we jump ship. Au contraire. Without Britain’s voice in Brussels, the pendulum might tip towards more protectionist countries, such a France. That would mean a drift towards protection against imports from non-EU countries, including Britain.

There is also an even greater danger, as William Hague has pointed out. Brexit might unleash nationalist forces across Europe, which would destroy the whole European experiment.

Hooray, say the sceptics. But be careful what you wish for. A Europe of uncontrolled, poisonous, national hatred and jealousy is something we have seen before: in 1910-14 and in 1933-39.

The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.

What is Brexit and why are we having an EU referendum?

Will we gain or lose rights by leaving the European Union?

What will happen to immigration if there's Brexit?

Will Brexit make the UK more or less safe?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will leaving the EU save taxpayers money and mean more money for the NHS?

What will Brexit do to UK trade?

How Brexit will affect British tourism

What will Brexit mean for British tourists booking holidays in the EU?

Will Brexit help or damage the environment?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

What will Brexit mean for British expats?

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