Stuart Bonar explains why the EU already offers us far more than can be gained by leaving. Based in Plymouth, Stuart Bonar works for the Royal College of Midwives and stood as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in the 2015 elections. He is a passionate advocate of the EU, and regularly blogs on LibDemVoice.org. Check out his other posts and the original version of this article here.
For years anti-Europeans have churned out stories about Brussels banning school children from eating yoghurt and the Queen from appearing on our passports. More recently they have latched onto immigration, with Brexiters offering up conflicting numbers on how many millions of foreigners are on their way to the UK.
With the referendum approaching however, the time has come for them to stop complaining and start explaining. What assurances can they give, for instance, to people in Swindon who earn a living building cars for the Japanese car manufacturer, Honda? How secure are their jobs going to be if trade barriers go back up?
Compare that to the anti-Europeans: asked on Newsnight whether Britain would have to keep its borders open to EU nationals even if we left, Conservative outer Owen Paterson MP said, “that depends”. Would we still need to pay money to Brussels? “It depends”. But Paterson did make clear that a post-EU Britain would get a seat on “the global committee on fish”. What glittering prizes await us if we leave!
The Great Trade Debate
When Eurosceptics fashion some kind of argument it centres on Britain striking free trade deals with Europe and around the world. But what we have already – access to the single market – is better than any free trade deal we could ever get outside of the EU:
Free trade deals EU single market membership
- Free trade deals apply only to reduce or remove tariffs on specific products or services, often quickly becoming outdated.
- A free trade deal is commonly negotiated between two countries, and will often only concern tariffs.
- One concern is the political implications of having to negotiate free trade deals from scratch (with one study predicting it could take up to a decade to renegotiate our existing deals).
- Without the rest of the EU behind us we would have far less bargaining power with large countries such as China or the USA.
- The single market is a continuous process to reduce or remove tariffs across all 28 EU member states.
- The single market also unifies regulation of products and services. Instead of 28 different sets of rules on things we have one set for the whole EU.
- This means that if you’re producing goods that meet UK regulations, you can sell them to Germany, France and Ireland without having to research what the different rules are in each country.
- The EU is the largest trading block at the World Trade Organisation giving us the clout needed to push through the trade deals most important to us.
Free trade deals apply only to specific products and services, therefore a free trade deal is static and soon becomes outdated. The single market is a rolling process; free trade deals reduce or remove tariffs, but often makes limited difference to bureaucratic burdens.
In principle, the single market is for everything – for example, soon the EU will open it up to digital services, an area in which Britain is strong. With the single market, instead of 28 different sets of rules on things like the energy efficiency of washing machines we have one set for the whole EU. That means if you’re producing widgets that meet UK regulations you can also sell them to Germany, France and Ireland without having to research what the different rules are in each country and then design and manufacture a new widget to meet each country’s separate laws. Firms large and small can easily fulfil orders from right across the EU – a marketplace with eight times as many customers as Britain. In contrast, free trade deals are often narrow in scope compared to this comprehensive free trade offered by the EU’s single market.
Crafting new trade deals
EU countries buy a lot from us. Seven of our 10 biggest export markets are EU members, according to the latest trade figures. In September our exports to just those seven countries were worth over £9bn – 13 times the value of what we sold to China. Why make it harder to keep doing that by pulling out of the single market?
What we have right now gives us exactly what the Leave campaigners say they want – free trade deals with countries right around the world, 51 in fact. If we left then the moment the door slammed shut behind us we would cease to be part of those deals. We’d have to go back and negotiate them again from scratch. And America, another big,important export market, has made it clear it’s not interested in a bilateral deal with us.
Leave.eu says, “if Iceland can negotiate a free trade deal with China, then we most certainly can.” They think this is their trump card, but they rely on people not checking the detail. If you do a bit of digging you discover that the deals are lopsided:
Here’s what the Icelandic Government says about their deal with China: “For a small number of products the Chinese tariff will be dismantled during a transition period of 5 or 10 years. Chinese exports into Iceland are duty-free as from the entry into force of the agreement.”
The Swiss free trade deal with China is similar, according to KPMG. Swiss firms selling products popular with Chinese consumers have to wait to feel the benefits of the deal, but Chinese firms selling what the Swiss like get into Switzerland immediately.
We’re bigger than Iceland or Switzerland, but we’re not bigger than China. You only have to recall how we rolled out the red carpet for the Chinese president last month to realise who needs whom in that unequal relationship.
There’s a lot more to the EU than trade, as MEP Catherine Bearder and others have passionately argued, but trade is an important part of the debate.
Right now, Britain has free access to a marketplace of 500 million people, and thanks to the EU it has free trade agreements with dozens of countries around the world. If we left, all that would be lost. It would take decades just to get back some of what we have today.
Would all that sacrifice and damage really be worth it for a British seat on Owen Paterson’s global committee on fish?
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