I was interested today to see an item from Sir Richard Branson, stating his belief that the UK needs to stay in Europe. He makes a good economic case for it, and he is not alone. I note that the body that represents the major British companies makes the point that thousands of jobs and a large amount of the UK's income would be in danger if the UK decided to leave the EU. Not unexpectedly, on such a polarised subject, the comments appended to Sir Richard's well thought out argument range from the downright rude and typically 'anti-wealth' sort, full-on anti-EU in any form, through the 'it's-all-a-Nazi-plot-and-we'll-beat-them-again-in-a-fight-for-our-freedom', to the supportive.
We do need to get a more balanced debate going on this. I note most of the extreme anti-EU/anti-anyone-pro-EU comments seem to come from typical 'tabloid' type readers, but I dare say this is a generalisation which may be unfair. There are, of course, some very well informed people on the anti-EU side of the argument, and they are worth reading and engaging. At the other end of the spectrum there are others who feel the debate can't be had at all, and shouldn't be, and the whole does seem to be complicated by our politicians inherent ability to obfuscate, conceal motives and generally not play with a straight bat. Plus, the Whitehall penchant for using every EU Directive to 'gild the lily' and gold plate their badly written and often conflicting 'regulations'.
There are good arguments on both sides of the debate, not least being that the Pound Sterling is a very strong currency at present, and any attempt to bring it into the €uro is likely to cause major problems. There is also the problem of England's, in particular, ancient legal system which is at odds with the systems in use in Europe. The funny part of that is that many in the UK think that the European systems do not have the same 'protections' built into them as is the case with English Common Law - and they are wrong. If anything most European systems are stricter and more demanding on standards of evidence and protection of the innocent. Some even give the victims of any crime a say in court with the victim having counsel alongside the Prosecutor. Where there is a misunderstanding on this in the US and the UK is that there are no Juries, but there is an extremely rigorous review of the evidence for a prosecution at each step of the way - so when someone is finally accused and brought to trial, the evidence is generally pretty strong. Of course there are failures - but show me how the English or the US system is free of error.
Put simply, the UK system allows the courts to determine what the relevant law means in most cases, and builds up a body of 'Case Law' which is used in all future cases involving that legislation. In Europe the law means what it says and the application of it is left to local enforcement, with the court acting in a more refereeing capacity to determine the 'degree of guilt' involved in the breach of it. Thus, while most EU member states take a 'directive' and paste it into their statute books, in the UK a two page Directive can become a hundred page document full of if, but, maybe and 'wriggle' space. As a lawyer friend once remarked, it is the principle of English Law that if it isn't specifically forbidden, it is permissible, and regulations are always read looking for a way to avoid compliance. I suspect this is what frightens many on the 'anti-EU' side of the debate - they don't want to give up being able to evade complying with anything they can.
Recently there has been much debate about the UK taking the same position as Switzerland or Norway and being 'affiliated' to the EU as part of a trading bloc, but not within it. That does overlook a couple of elements, the first being that Switzerland is now having to open up more of its activities to scrutiny, without really having much influence in the affairs of those demanding it. The reason is that they have enjoyed being a Tax Haven, and now the chickens have found a roost. Germany bought a CD quite openly and discovered the extent of tax evasion by people who, frankly, should know better. One has now been convicted and will spend three years in jail, and repay the €28 million he evaded. Even Norway is finding itself having to comply with EU regulations in return for its 'special' status, and I am convinced that they and the Swiss will eventually join up fully.
A part of the argument that, for me, makes much more sense, is that of sheer size as a trading bloc. Britain has lost almost all of its heavy industrial capacity, for reasons I won't enter into here, and is no longer self-sufficient in food or energy production. It is possessed of a welfare system that is more generous and more expensive than anyone else's and its politics and the penchant for boycotts, sanctions and so on among sections of its body politic, have isolated it from many of the markets it enjoyed up to the 1950s. Yes, we are a nuclear power, and we have the four ISBN submarines to prove it, even though, under Mr Blair, and now Mr Cameron, we don't have a full outfit of missiles for all of them and none actually carry a full complement of warheads anyway. Our Fleet has been run down and reduced to the point, almost, of being a coastal defence force, with fewer Type 45 destroyers than we actually need, and most of its ships so specialised they are probably not suited to the types of operation they are now called upon to conduct - such as anti-piracy patrols. Our Army is being further reduced, from 102,000 to 82,000 and the plan is to increase the 'part-time' soldiers of the TA to 30,000 to make up the difference. Then there is the question of the RAF. Some of their aircraft cost almost as much as a small ship, and they've been cut as well.
So how do those who argue that 'Britain will stand alone again against the Fourth Reich' propose to do so? With what? The days we could turn just about anyone into a sailor, soldier or airman, churn out destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers, tanks, bombs, shells and aircraft in weeks or months are gone. The shipyards, factories and resources are gone, and even in WW2 Britain never actually stood alone - she had all her colonial and Dominion and Empire Forces totalling almost a million men, plus their factories and resources to call on. It really is time to drop that particular pipe dream. Those days are over, we are a small, overcrowded, and probably over governed island, a small and increasingly insignificant fish in a world which sees one of our former 'possessions' now operating a larger and more powerful fleet than our own.
As I see it, Britain needs to think again about our relationship with Europe. We can be a part of it, and yes, it does need to be restructured and reformed, or we can be a small and largely annoyingly irrelevant offshore refuge for tax evaders and destination for tourists. True, we have some oil and gas reserves offshore (and possibly on land) but then there is that welfare bill to pay. If we join Europe properly, and play it to our advantage, we can continue to exert a powerful influence in the world alongside the rest of Europe. Together Europe has a better punch in terms of Defence, in economic clout (why do we think the US finacial markets expend so much effort talking down the €uro?), in terms of political punch and in manufacturing output. But, we need to look very carefully at what does work for everyone in the UK, and what could be made better. Our biggest problem is we think in the short term only, this month, this quarter, this year - we need to break that mould and find a better way to think and plan. We need a vision.
Sir Richard's 'vision' (with many other entrepreneurs and businessmen) is to stay in Europe and to find a way to make a United Europe work for everyone. We can embrace that, or we can turn inward, to a pre-Tudor "Little England". I know which one I prefer.