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So You Want to Leave the European Union

Have you really thought it through?

By Phil Bennion, Member of the European Parliament


Much has been said and written recently on the prospects for the British economy if we were to leave the European Union. The debate usually focuses on employment. Unsurprisingly, Eurosceptics tend to select the lowest estimates of jobs dependent upon EU membership, as well as the largest estimates of costs. Similarly, Europhiles tend to use the often quoted ‘3.5 million jobs’.


Though the figure must be significant, Eurosceptics – and many pro-Europeans – are failing to address the wider questions of what it would mean to leave Europe. Focusing solely on employment, though an absolutely vital issue, also misses the political arguments for EU membership, which are at least as potent. There are very real risks to the integrity of the United Kingdom if the English lead it out of the EU, while society now takes for granted many benefits of membership which could disappear.


However, let us first look at the economic arguments. The Daily Express recently opined that we could easily ‘pay our way’ outside of the European Union, pointing to our export performance to non-EU countries. They miss the rather obvious point that this success is achieved as an EU member state, so it could just as well be cited as evidence that EU membership does not hamper export potential to third countries.


Large UK companies such as Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), with whom I have regular meetings, agree entirely with this view. Despite the odd problem with specific legislation, companies like these view EU membership as beneficial, and over two thirds of JLR’s annual production leaves Europe. For them the EU Single Market simplifies their requirements markedly. They produce models that will meet both EU and US standards, and have a strong voice when these standards are reviewed. They have suppliers around Europe (although mostly in the UK) and the Single Market allows them to work with all free of border controls.


Other businesses I speak to in the West Midlands and from across Britain give a similar view. Exporting into Europe is easy; shipping goods to Germany is no different from shipping them to Scotland. They can also source labour from other EU countries to fill skill shortages when necessary. None of this would be true if we left the EU and thereby the Single Market.


A scoping exercise carried out by Lib Dem party headquarters recently found that around 600 US-owned companies are operating in the West Midlands alone. If we add other foreign-owned businesses, we can see that this sector is vital to jobs, both in my region and in the UK as a whole. It is clear that the main reason these companies are here is to trade within the EU's Single Market; the largest marketplace in the world. If we were to leave, inward investment would suffer and some firms would move away into the EU. It is difficult to make accurate predictions as to how many jobs would be lost from the UK through such a flight of foreign owned businesses, though the figure must be very substantial. UK-based suppliers would also suffer if relocation was significant. A general slowdown in the services sector due to ‘Brexit’-related unemployment could easily tip us into an economic slump.


Some claim that being able to set our own employment laws would easily make up for these losses. However, when I ask businesses which laws they most want to change, the answers are usually varied and unspecific. I do not doubt that we could make some improvement; some of us strive for this every day in the European Parliament, with success, but most employee protection laws would continue even if we were to leave the EU. UKIP seem to assume that a UK outside of the EU would be ruled by an extreme right-wing government and that social protections of all kinds would be dismantled. This is fantasy.


There are many other advantages that people have grown used to in 40 years. We have easy access and free movement across borders for holidays, work or education, even outside the Schengen zone. One has only to get caught in the "All Passports" queue at an airport to realise how slow they move. How will we react to regular queues of over an hour? More importantly, there are around 1 million Brits who have retired to other member states such as Spain with access to local health and other services. They have been able to do this as of right for four decades. Imagine this right removed; how would we cope if even half decided to move here again?


The debate must also look at the international political advantages of EU membership. The UK and France are the two big players in Europe as far as international issues are concerned. The two countries work surprisingly well together in the international framework, as we saw recently in Libya for example, and both enjoy the leverage of EU membership. Across the world we are important and receive a hearing. This is largely because the two nations can jointly speak for Europe. If we were outside of the EU, we will abandon this role to the French. Our Foreign Minister will be a bit part player and we will lose influence on the World stage. Regardless of NATO, it would almost certainly hasten the end of our UN Security Council seat and confine us to an inward looking future.


The ‘special relationship’ with the USA would also be lost for good. The Americans have made it clear that the UK is of little importance to them outside of the EU. The UKIP dream of an alliance of the English-speaking world is just that – a dream.


It is not just the US; our Commonwealth allies also want and need us to remain a central player in Europe. I speak regularly to senior politicians and ambassadors from the South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They are aghast at the possibility of the UK leaving Europe. We are their conduit to the Single Market and our long term relationship has evolved into a mutually beneficial relationship between the EU and the Commonwealth countries. They do not want to go back to a more isolated bloc. There will be no great Commonwealth revival if we leave Europe. Our old ties will simply become less relevant.


We have other allies too. The Polish Finance Minister said as much when he appeared on Newsnight the other week, confirming that the UK, as the largest member of the so called "like-minded group" in the EU, would be much missed. Angela Merkel has also made it clear that Germany values British participation in the EU on many wider issues and that Europe would be weakened without us.


Finally, the in-out EU debate has not yet recognised the likely impact on the future of the United Kingdom itself. I believe the Scottish referendum will endorse the continuation of the Union – unless, on the day of the vote, it looks likely that the UK will leave Europe. After recent opinion polls highlighted this, the SNP is now talking up this scenario.


If we have a referendum and England votes to leave the EU, but other parts of the United Kingdom vote to stay in, then the UK will be doomed. First, the Scots will insist on a second referendum and then leave the UK to rejoin the EU. The Northern Ireland question will be reopened, as border controls will have to be brought back and its strongest ties are to Scotland. Wales will resent being dragged out of Europe and nationalism will be resurgent there too. The end result will not be a proud and independent United Kingdom, but a weakened and shrunken Little England, impoverished, inward-looking and alone.


I support Liberal Democrat party policy to put any significant EU treaty change to a referendum, but it is my strong preference to avoid an in-out vote. A referendum can be won with a fair debate but it would only need a few bad EU news days just before the poll to make the outcome a lottery. I do not believe we should subject our future to such an unnecessary risk.


I also do not believe a Yes vote to stay in would settle the issue for very long. The Eurosceptics are unlikely to be satisfied. Do we really believe that their response will be "Well, that's alright then, we're staying in Europe”? Of course not. But there is a strong and growing chance that such a referendum will happen and if so I will be campaigning to stay in. The debate over many aspects of the EU has been unbalanced and at times poisonous. If we are to win this vital battle for Britain, we must prepare the ground. Otherwise we should not be surprised if we stumble out of Europe into an uncertain future and have to live with the regrets.







Phil Bennion

About the Writer

Phil is a Liberal Democrat MEP for the West Midlands and a farmer. You can find out more about him at


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