EU referendum: Stop the complacency or Britain could sleepwalk out of the European Union

Denis MacShane
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Britain can easily sleepwalk out of Europe with the encouragement of Nigel Lawson (Source: Getty)
There must have been something in the water at Number 11 Downing Street in the 1970s and 1980s: two of the most famous post-war chancellors have now said they will vote Out in David Cameron’s forthcoming EU referendum.
Denis Healey told the New Statesman some time ago that he would vote to quit Europe if a referendum was held. And now his successor, Nigel Lawson, still the most admired post-war chancellor for Tory activists, has announced that he is forming a group to campaign for an Out vote.
Neither are doing the Prime Minister the courtesy of waiting for his famous renegotiation, when he arrives back from Europe waving a piece of paper in his hand to announce he has done the deal that keeps us in the EU.
But Lawson’s announcement reflects the hardening of opinion against Europe. The three latest opinion polls by YouGov, Survation and ICM all showing narrow majorities for an Out vote.
The CBI’s John Cridland spoke at a Policy Network fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference this week and repeated the CBI mantra that British business is in favour of staying in the EU but – and the ‘but’ is important – on condition that it is a “reformed” EU.
Curiously, the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says much the same thing. He, like Cridland, want a reformed EU. But his desired reforms go in the opposite direction to the CBI and all other business outfits.
Corbyn wants a more social EU, with enhanced worker rights, preferably no TTIP free trade deal with the United States, and an end to debt and deficit reduction policies.
The Cridland-Corbyn axis of qualifying their support for staying in the EU with old-fashioned political impossiblist demands – more neo-liberal Europe for Cridland, more trade union and statist Europe for Corbyn – means that no-one is out there campaigning to stay in, period.
Neither business nor the left and the unions are going to get the EU of their dreams between now and the date of the referendum, which Peter Mandelson assured at the same fringe meeting is scheduled for late next year.
Every single EU capital and all of the Brussels bigwigs agree that Europe needs reform. They just disagree what those reforms are.
We are seeing the rise of a new protectionism against competition in Europe’s over-expensive, anti-competitive taxi market. East European countries are horrified at being told that they must take refugees and economic migrants coming across the Mediterranean.
But they are equally horrified at calls from UK politicians for limits or quotas on the free movement of their own citizens – especially the right to export their unemployment to Britain and other richer EU states with labour markets greedy for cheap labour.
The canny British EU commissioner Lord Jonathan Hill this week unveiled plans to create a Capital Markets Union for all 28 member states. Read the small print reference to “legislative changes”, and once again Brussels is talking about more EU power to override national legislation regulating the savings, insurance and banking industries so that a pan-EU market for capital can come into being.
Before the referendum, there will be the Super Thursday elections next May for a Scottish Assembly, along with those for the Mayor of London, the Welsh Assembly and the councillors in all major English cities and towns.
All those seeking votes will take a line on Europe, especially Ukip, whose 4m votes did not produce a single extra MP, but whose network of MEPs and councillors will be busy making the case for leaving Europe as part of the intense political campaigning period about to open.
The Leave camp has already raised a reported £20m, while there is no In or Remain organisation yet in sight.
It has been taken as a given in elite circles of government, business and politics that there was no chance of Britain ever voting itself out of the EU. That complacency needs serious re-thinking.
Britain can easily sleepwalk out of Europe with the encouragement of Nigel Lawson and Denis Healey, and every business should start making contingency plans for that possibility.

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