September 04 2009 Let me make something clear from the start of this piece: I like Europe and Europeans. I like the idea of having closer ties to the continent. I think the Channel Tunnel's a great thing. I'm in favour of free trade and, to the extent that it's practical, open borders. But I have to admit, the jury's out on the European Union and a lot of people feel the same way. There's been a big swing towards anti-EU parties (not just in the UK either) across Europe. Why? EU supporters tend to claim that people just don't understand Europe. The logical conclusion from this is that they should just shut up and entrust handling it to the people who do, the politicians. But I don't think people are that daft. If they can understand how a subprime mortgage (a pretty abstract concept in the first place) got sliced and diced and distributed in such a way as to kick off the collapse of the financial system, then they should be able to get a handle on just about anything. Free brochures on managing your money in uncertain times Governments becoming more powerful I think the real problem is that people feel that political power is becoming ever more distant from them. Governments seem to be getting bigger and more dictatorial and the concerns of individuals seem to be getting lost. I think the anti-EU vote was an anti-big-government vote. But what might happen if we ended up leaving the EU? Most obviously there's the economic impact. But what would it be? One thing that's very apparent when you try to find out anything about the EU is that no one is neutral. Everyone wants to spin a line either for or against the whole project, so it's very difficult to get any clear information. The right-leaning think tank Civitas reckons the best estimates put the annual net cost to the UK of EU membership at £55 billion, but that includes various indirect costs that can be disputed. So if you want a straight figure that's hard to quibble with, you can just look at our annual net contribution to the EU. That's the amount of money we put in, minus what we get back in the form of EU spending on things like farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), for example. This adds up to £6.4 billion this year, a 60% jump on last year. EU regulation could mean smaller pensions for UK investors A CAP on the benefits How did that happen? To cut a long story short, Margaret Thatcher organised a big rebate on our contribution for Britain back in the 1980s. We received it because our agricultural sector was so much smaller than others, meaning we didn't benefit as much from the CAP. In 2005, in exchange for a promised reform of the CAP, Tony Blair gave away a chunk of the rebate. The CAP changed very little, but we've still ended up paying a lot more. EU supporters often argue that if we were to leave the EU our economy would be badly hit due to a collapse in trade. The EU is the biggest free trade bloc in the world after all, but this is a hard one to prop up. We're a big consumer country (until recently at least), so as well as selling to the EU we buy a great deal too. So the notion that EU countries would stop trading with us is something of a leap. Are you going to stop selling goods to one of your biggest customers simply because they're no longer part of your gang? I don't think so. Trade shares online from £9.95 National interests can be a stumbling block What other, less tangible benefits do we get? Well, the Single Market - the idea that there should be free movement of goods, people, services and capital across the EU member states - is a good idea. So far it's given us cheaper telecoms and budget airlines, both of which are great news for consumers. The main problems that arise with attempts to push the Single Market into other areas are the result of member countries pursuing national interests and opting out of proposals - such as the notorious reluctance of the French to allow takeovers by foreign companies, for example. So in terms of practical economic benefits you can argue the case to and fro, but there's no strong evidence to suggest that we'd really be worse off financially out of the EU. In any case, I'm not sure that this is what really worries people. After all, our own government wastes plenty of our money too. Would we be better off without the rest of Europe? More bureaucracy, more politicians The real problem with the EU is that it's yet another layer of government on top of the devolved layer of national parliaments already added to Britain, and that means more politicians. If you think our domestic politicians are corrupt and money-grubbing, then you should see their European counterparts. I'm not for a second downplaying the expenses scandal, but by European standards it was small beer. Europe is also highly unaccountable compared with national governments: the actual European parliament (the democratically elected bit) doesn't have as much power as you might think. As Civitas points out, most decisions are made or shaped by the EU Commission. This is led by a commissioner from each member state, who in turn is appointed by their national government. In other words, the only time you get to have a say on the people who really make the rules in the EU is at a general election - and even then you're only electing the party who will appoint the commissioner on your behalf. Bad outweighs the good Ultimately, what you think we should do about Europe comes down to what you believe in. If you're happy with the notion of giving more power to politicians and allowing them to be less accountable, which some people actually are, then the European project is fine. But I'm not happy about that. I don't like the corruption, the lack of accountability and the contempt for democracy and the wishes of the voters that seem to go hand-in-hand with support for the whole project. I also don't think the nebulous benefits that accrue from being part of the EU are anywhere near enough reason to put up with it. That's not to say that the EU is a bad thing. In fact, I want to like it. The notion of a sort of European club, which gradually expands and has the broad aim of helping more peripheral economies to develop and trade with one another and which encourages and enables easy labour movement between countries is a great idea. Where was the middle ground? My point is that it shouldn't have to be an either/or proposition. What we really need are politicians with the spine to stand up more effectively for Britain's interests in Europe and to push through more accountability and transparency. If that happened, it would be a lot easier for sceptics and in-betweeners to make informed decisions as to how beneficial or otherwise the EU is. You also wouldn't have to lie to voters to get them to accept expansion. But most politicians would rather be seduced by the idea that they are a platonic guardian class of uber-humans making decisions on the behalf of know-nothing plebs like you and me. So in terms of the parties we can vote for we're left with the choice of either being all for the EU or all against it. Faced with that choice, I'm not surprised so many people have turned to protest votes. If enough of them do so, then maybe the mainstream parties will have to start paying attention and take a tougher line.