Staying in the EU is all about control

By - Monday 29th February, 2016

Robert Ward isn’t sure how he’ll vote in the EU referendum yet, but he knows what issues will determine his choice

We now know how our three Croydon MPs will vote in the forthcoming referendum on our EU membership. They all plan to vote for us to remain, although Chris Philp does so somewhat reluctantly.

None of the three are old enough to have voted last time that we were asked a similar question. That was in 1975, when the UK voted by almost a two to one majority to stay. On that occasion, I was with the majority.

The club that we voted to stay in all those years ago was very different from the European Union of today. In 1975 it was usually referred to as the Common Market. The major UK parties were all broadly in favour of staying.

Since 1975, a large group of less developed countries has joined

The choice today is, on the face of it, little different. We give up some sovereignty (in other words control of what happens in our country) in exchange for the advantages of being part of a larger group. What is different is that we have forty years of experience to inform us. It would be foolish to ignore that learning opportunity.

So how would the 1975 me react to the reality of 2016? Well, he would be very surprised that so many new countries have joined the club and so changed its character. In 1975, other than Italy, it was predominantly a group of northern European advanced economies.

Since then a large group of less developed countries has joined. Serbia, Albania and Turkey wait in the wings. The 1975 me would be (and to be honest the 2016 me is) rather annoyed that I voted to join a club which then substantially changed its character, giving me no say in the matter.

The countries party to the Schengen Agreement failed to enforce their own rules

Worse still, many of the club rules have cheerfully been ignored by other members when they didn’t suit them. Greece fiddled the figures in order to keep borrowing more than it could ever hope to repay, and squandered the money rather than using it to invest, charging it all to Germany’s credit card.

The countries party to the Schengen Agreement failed to enforce their own rules, even pillorying Hungary when that country did apply them. Mercifully we had joined neither of these EU sub-groups, although their problems still had a significant impact on us.

Closer to home, Tony Blair handed back part of the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher. He thought that he was getting in return reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and extension of the single market to services. Neither has yet happened.

Successive governments had the right to block disadvantageous changes. They didn’t

So we joined a club which then invited others to join that completely changed its character. The members ignore the rules when they don’t suit them and refuse to implement changes that they have previously agreed to. Not much of a recommendation, is it?

Furthermore, to vote to stay not only does the deal need to be a good one, one also must believe that our own politicians can be trusted to stick to that deal and not allow substantial changes without asking us. In this, both major parties failed. Successive governments had the right to block disadvantageous changes. They didn’t, and what’s more they didn’t ask us, always finding some excuse not to.

This brings into sharp focus our loss of control. In the case of national parliaments, we have regular elections – opportunities to ‘throw the rascals out’ and elect a different group of people who can change our laws. When it comes to the EU we give up our right to throw the rascals out and our own parliament can no longer change our laws. That is a big deal. That is what it means to have given up control.

For Croydon, Gatwick Airport is the most obvious business that might be affected

The most vociferous opponents in 1975 correctly identified the control issue. They consisted of an unholy alliance of the right wing of the Tory party and the left wing of the Labour Party, who saw it as a capitalist plot to undermine workers’ rights.

Since then the Labour Party has decided that the loss of control is acceptable. They have been convinced that the EU is a back door route to furthering their agenda.

This is a poor argument. Being in favour because you think it will get you your way in spite of the fact that the majority of your countrymen might be against your way is undemocratic. Worse, the rest of Europe can change its mind and you may find yourself taken the other way. The impending TTIP agreement is much less to Labour’s liking, yet they will have just as much say in its implementation.

However, just because being in the EU is not perfect does not mean that we shouldn’t be in. There are hard to quantify advantages and the mitigation measures in place, recently modified by Cameron’s diplomacy, may be enough to swing the balance. For Croydon, Gatwick Airport is the most obvious business that might be affected, my judgement though is not by much. All of that needs to be weighed up before I make my mind up. One thing is sure, as an instinctive internationalist I am less enthusiastic than I was in 1975.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    We shall, of course, be voting to stay in.

    • Peter Staveley

      We shall, of course, be voting to leave the EU.

  • AR

    “Return to the glorious days of the Empire”…oh no it’s gone,
    “To the glorious post-war days”….oh no, remember rations lasing longer then in most European cities?…
    “To the glorious 70′s…oh no remember the IMF bailout & winter of discontent… oh well it’ll be different this time…

    • Robert Ward

      None of which has any relevance to whether we should be in or out of the EU. It is a question of looking forward and deciding whether our future is better in or out.

  • Charles Barber

    I’m intrigued by the Schengen rules. Can you explain a bit more. Also, I don’t think anybody pretended the club was full up in 1975. Should I start getting upset when a new member joins my tennis club? Or only if they come from the south. The EU is far from perfect, name me one large organization that is and the decision to invent the Euro was probably a big mistake, but on the whole it’s a club I’f prefer to be in rather than out of. We are geographically, culturally and economically a part of Europe, and if we stay at least we might have some influence in its direction. Not of course, that we should assume, we’re always a good influence.

    • Robert Ward

      Schengen rules as far as I am aware grew out of an arrangement between the Benelux countries which was extended and confirmed in an agreement signed at Schengen. We are not part of it. Essentially once you are inside the Schengen area there are no passport checks. As a foreigner (from outside the EU) there is a common visa arrangement so you only pay once to visit all Schengen countries.

      On your point about joining a club, in this club you are tied together legally and financially. It’s not like joining a tennis club. In the EU you sign up to let new members come and stay in your house, use your bar and sleep in your bed. If you join the euro you let them use your credit card too.

      I agree we are geographically, culturally and economically part of Europe. That remains the same whether we are in or out of the EU.

      • Charles Barber

        You suggest in your article that countries that are within the Schengen area have somehow broken the Schengen rules but still haven’t explained how. Pleased to say that no Greek, Latvian or Slovenian has yet illegally entered my property, drunk at my bar or slept in my bed. Yes of course it is slightly more serious than being a member of a tennis club but there are also benefits to being legally bound by EU agreements. If we are serious about tackling such issues as climate change etc. Also, not being in the Euro we are not so bound financially, and it is interesting to note that the current President of the US, who seems like an intelligent, thoughtful man, believes we will be better off in the EU. I would humbly suggest that if we leave the EU it will damage not just trade with the EU countries but with other countries outside the EU as well.

        • Robert Ward

          Thank you Charles. My article tries to present factual information and explain the basis on which I will likely decide.

          Regarding at least some of your points:-
          - I am not sure if I suggested it but the Schengen countries did break their own rules. Part of the Schengen agreement is that people who arrive at the border of the Schengen area should be checked for visas. If they do not have them then that country should refuse them entry or process their application for asylum. What happened in Greece and elsewhere is that the migrants/asylum seekers were allowed entry without checks or processing asylum applications. They were allowed entry knowing that they would likely leave that country. Once inside the Schengen area there were no further barriers at the borders.

          - Your point on issues like climate change harks to my point on control. We are perfectly able to make our decisions on climate change and can chose to follow the EU or not. Your point seems to be that the EU will force us to do things that we otherwise might not do. That is my point on control.

          - Regarding our ability to trade and make deals, how we might succeed or fail either in or out is a matter for each of us to make our own judgement. In my view we can be successful either in or out. This is again why I say it is all about control.

          • Charles Barber

            What would you have done with the poor people that crossed the Mediterranean in boats that were probably unsuitable for the task. Pushed the back out to sea? Some things alas are beyond our control but it is how we respond to them that matters.

          • Robert Ward

            That is a question that exists whether we are in or out of the European Union.

            The response agreed under the Schengen arrangement is for those that arrive and claim asylum to be processed in that country. That does not mean they have to stay in that country but they need to be identified and their claim assessed. They are no longer in danger.

          • Charles Barber

            Yes, of course, our decision whether to stay or go has nothing to do with the fact that Greece probably doesn’t have the resources to deal with the tide of people from Syria etc. Presumably the new independent UK that has so much control is going to help its poor neighbour Greece out in this capacity.

          • Robert Ward

            You are correct. It has no relevance at all.

          • Charles Barber

            I did not quite say this. Indeed how we treat and are viewed by our neighbours goes to the heart of the European question. The EU has failed to respond well to the migrant crisis but I suspect there would be even more chaos and suffering if the EU didn’t exist. It is the illusion that we can solve such problems by pulling up drawbridges, which now alas even the EU seems prone to, that I see as anti humanitarian and flawed. Alas, in this respect our own government has a far worse record than the EU. We should not always assume that having more control leads to better decisions. Perhaps though in some ways, we do have more control by staying in the EU. At least we have some say in the decisions taken by the most influential trading bloc in Europe.

      • Charles Barber

        This is my last point though it may well show up as my first. If we leave the EU we will be perceived by both EU countries and the rest of the world as being less within Europe. People within a club like to trade with people in the same club and even people outside a certain club are more impressed by people or countries that have at least committed to joining and taking part in a club. You yourself may well be an open-minded European but we will be perceived as a country that has snubbed Europe and prefers a more isolationist position. If on the other hand we stay within Europe and work with other countries for certain reforms that might benefit us and the rest of Europe, we will be seen as a more enlightened, wiser country.