Andrew Woodcock / May 2016
Photo: European Union
Clubs exist for the benefit of their members. The EU is no exception. Members get well-established dialogue structures, reciprocal benefits and goodwill on issues they care about because all recognise it is a two way street, and because they know they speak strongest when speaking with one voice.
Many interdependencies, spillovers, and opportunities for cooperation would exist even without the EU. The choice is to manage them effectively or to have to react to them piecemeal. Negotiating rafts of bilateral deals with neighbours on all issues might be possible, but would be exceptionally unwieldy (as Switzerland’s experience increasingly illustrates). The prospect of ensuing disorder could harm our continent, and to think otherwise is to bury our heads in the sand.
Business in one example. The Commission can set agendas and stand up to anti-competitive corporate interests far more effectively than individual member states by virtue of the EU’s political as well as economic clout. Ref also the European Parliament’s stand on roaming charges. The consumer benefits. And would member states really get better deals for global trade if the EU were not there? Even a post-Brexit UK, for all its economic might, would rarely get better terms acting alone, particularly in key larger markets (paradoxically it might be locked out from EU trade deals it had done much to broker).
Brussels oversees the Single Market because all member states recognise the need for robust institutions to set and enforce common standards (as Adam Smith would have argued). For that is what a Common Market is. Outcomes may not always suit individual members, but members often get much of what they want- and certainly more from the club than non-members do.
Take migration. The Treaties did not foresee the scale of recent migration to Britain, though even here Brexit is not necessarily the way forward. Most EU citizens who wish to reside in Britain are already there and may later return home, and UK citizens also enjoy broader EU residency rights. Migration statistics alone do not reflect contributions to the economy of the states intra-EU migrants go to. Research estimates the net benefit to Britain as £20bn over 11 years up to 2011. EU migrants are also less likely than others to receive state benefits - unsurprisingly as 60% are graduates. Crucially, all members gain from EU cooperation in stemming the flow of migrants from outside Europe. If member states did not regard each other as key partners over many issues, what incentive would they have for cooperation where progress is relatively harder?
Then there is the environment. Much of what matters to us requires coordination at an EU level or else is only effective supra-nationally, for example on emissions. The EU acts together on the world stage based on an environmental agenda that the member states, including the UK, help to set. The alternative would be done-deals with individual member states able to do little more than passively react.
It works in foreign policy too. Churchill noted that there is something worse than having to work with allies, and that is having to work without them. The instinctive support of close allies can be a strong objectives-multiplier. Especially in key arenas where individual states may struggle to be heard- such as in Tehran or Beijing. We can be all the more influential by virtue of the EU providing (together with the member states) around 60% of all development aid, and not being perceived as having hidden agendas. It has been particularly effective on security-related issues and promoting human rights. Working for the EU in Islamabad, I saw for myself how crucial messages for Pakistan can play better if delivered by the EU as a whole rather than by any prominent member in isolation.
Alas, those who lose from EU policies are often cohesive groups directly identifying the source of their loss: winners may be more numerous but are typically disparate groups perceiving gains (eg on prices, choice or quality) only indirectly or subjectively. No prize for guessing which group shouts loudest! The policy can be sensible and effective while appearing unpopular. But this public policy challenge is by no means confined to the EU. Overall, the EU gives member states allies, options and strategic depth in an uncertain world. It is a major bulwark for peace and stability in Europe. We could not deal with each other nearly so effectively if only acting bilaterally.
The EU needs further reforms, but it is certainly no chimera. It does things, some concrete some less tangible but no less important, for governments and citizens that matter to us all. The likely consequences of Brexit demonstrate this only too clearly.