Britain’s economy will suffer hugely if it exits the EU after a referendum scheduled for 2017. Alternatively, it will not suffer at all, in fact, an exit is the necessary precondition for British economic renewal.
These opposing views will shape a debate that has enormous implications for Ireland.
Former Labour home secretary Charles Clarke and Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell slugged it out on the merits of Britain either staying in or leaving the EU over the next few years at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) in Dublin yesterday.
Prime minister David Cameron has pledged a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017, if the Tories are re-elected at the next election in 2015.
Mr Clarke argued that a number of myths had grown up around a British exit from the single market. He said it was not possible to make any fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s position. Moreover, a withdrawal from the biggest trading bloc in the world would have very damaging consequences, because there would be a move towards a much deeper single market over the next few years and Britain needed to be a member to defend its interests, particularly in areas like financial services.
The recent comments made by car manufacturer Nissan that it would consider future investment in Britain in the event of a ‘Brexit’ was not sabre rattling and such a prospect posed huge economic risks, he added.
The British economy had benefited from immigration from the EU in the past and will continue to do so in the future, said Mr Clarke. Furthermore, Britain has not suffered from a loss of sovereignty since accession to the EEC in 1973.
Not surprisingly, Mr Carswell rejected all of these points. He said the EU was a failed project. “Since 2004, the GDP of China has risen by 130%. All that has risen in the EU over that period is debt and unemployment.”
He argued that when Britain joined the EU it was promised an increase in wealth in exchange for giving up some sovereignty. “Well we have given up our sovereignty but without the benefits. All we have done is tied ourselves to a clapped-out customs union,” said the Tory MP for Clacton.
The tide of public opinion was moving firmly in favour of a referendum and, if Mr Cameron negotiated for a repatriation of British powers in good faith and if these talks fail, then a plebiscite would almost certainly presage an EU exit, he added.
Mr Carswell said the British economy had become structurally uncompetitive because EU membership had imposed restrictive energy and labour regulations among other areas.
However, if Mr Cameron was able to secure three key concessions in negotiations with other EU leaders prior to a referendum, then Mr Carswell said he would vote for continued membership.
These concessions include Britain’s unfettered ability to negotiate individual trade deals; only conform with single market regulations when British companies sold into the single market; and no EU court would have jurisdiction over a British court.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved