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It's time to stop taking the benefits of EU membership for granted

August 2, 2013 10:58 AM
By Fiona Hall MEP in British Influence EuropeWatch
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

InvestmentThe first reports of the government's review into EU membership came to an almost unanimous verdict: being part of the EU is good for Britain. Businesses both large and small praised the benefits of the Single Market, which has allowed companies such as Vodafone to expand into Europe and beyond. A single set of rules across Europe has lowered costs for businesses and driven down prices for consumers, while EU trade deals have prised open new markets overseas. And as stressed by major foreign investors such as Japan, EU membership is of central importance for British jobs.

But while the overall conclusions of the review are largely positive, they also highlight the limitations of such an exercise. Namely, that Britain's EU membership cannot be easily boiled down to a utilitarian analysis of economic costs and benefits. Many of the advantages of being part of the EU, such as the bigger influence it gives UK in foreign affairs, trade and climate change policy, are not easily quantifiable. Similarly, the huge benefits for individuals in terms of ease of travel and consumer protection, or the success of EU efforts to tackle organised crime and human-trafficking, cannot simply be chalked up and measured against the costs of membership. Ultimately, being part of the EU is about far more than promoting the interests of UK businesses. It is about what kind of country we collectively would like to live in.

Let's rewind back to 1972. The UK economy was on the brink of the abyss, crippled by high inflation, unemployment and strikes. Outside the Common Market and rapidly falling behind its European partners, the UK was widely considered as the sick man of Europe. Politically, Britain's standing in the world was rapidly declining as it struggled to come to terms with the loss of empire. The freedoms we now take for granted, to work, and study across Europe and easily access goods and services from dozens of different countries, were practically non-existent. Anything east of the Iron Curtain was another planet. Businesses wishing to export to the Common Market were faced with a number of barriers, as was anyone who wanted to live on the continent. Isolated on the fringes of Europe and without the trappings of a global empire, Britain was an inward-looking and restrictive place.

Forty years on, modern Britain has been completely transformed by its EU membership. From the French patisseries, Italian restaurants and Spanish banks that line our high streets to the Japanese car factories using Britain as a European base, we have become fully integrated into the European economy. The City of London has thrived from its easy access to Europe's financial markets and its ability to attract talented Europeans from across the channel. Almost a million Brits are living out their retirements in the sunny (and now democratic) climes of Spain, Portugal and Greece, with full access to local healthcare and other services. Hundreds of thousands more are working and studying across the continent. And, thanks to the EU, you can book a low-cost flight to the other side of Europe, benefit from low mobile-phone roaming fees and bring back shopping to the UK without being charged customs duties.

EU Travel rightsThe UK's clout on the world stage has also been greatly enhanced by EU membership. With the backing of key players such as Germany, France and Italy and a market of 500 million behind us, we are able to take a global lead on issues such as climate change, international trade and tax evasion. EU research programmes have pumped billions of pounds of funding into UK universities and placed them at the heart of a vast international network of scientists, allowing them to take the lead in cutting-edge fields such as nano-technology, genetics and renewable energy. And European cooperation on organised crime has put an end to the days of the 'Costa del Crime,' giving British police the ability to rapidly extradite violent gangsters back to the UK and dismantle international people-smuggling or drug-trafficking networks. Overall, EU membership has made life for British people easier, safer and more prosperous than at any time before in our history.

Now let us imagine that we have skipped forward another forty years to 2053. Following the 'Great Mistake' of 2017, when the UK voted to leave the EU, foreign investment has dried up and trade with the outside world has plummeted to an all-time low, leading to dramatic job losses and a fall in average incomes. The British government has struggled to negotiate favourable trade deals with emerging economies such as China and Brazil, who did not see access to UK's dwindling market as a key priority once it had left the EU. Meanwhile, starved of its easy access to the eurozone, the City has become an empty shell of its former self, reliant on its new offshore tax haven status to try and attract investment. The forced repatriation of EU migrants has created a backlash in Europe, leading to the return of hundreds of thousands of pensioners back to the UK. And, locked out of EU police cooperation, the UK has become a hub of organised crime and a refuge for foreign criminals fleeing extradition. It now cuts a diminished figure on the world stage, perceived by those countries who were once its close partners as technologically backward, insular and irrelevant.

Such an apocalyptic outcome may seem unlikely. But while it is impossible to predict the exact consequences of leaving the EU, one thing is certain - outside of the EU, the UK would be less open and less able to deal with the challenges we face in the 21st century.

Fiona Hall is a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for North East England. In the European Parliament Fiona is a member of the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and Development (DEVE) Committees and the Election Co-ordination Group. Follow her on Twitter: @FionaHallMEP