Believe it or not, Jeremy Corbyn’s grudging intervention in the EU debate yesterday was startlingly refreshing. The Labour leader’s “warts and all” assessment that, on balance, perhaps it would be better to stay in the EU despite its many problems was far more reflective of the views of most Remain supporters than the starry-eyed arguments of true-believers like Peter Mandelson.
Nevertheless, of all the potential long-term outcomes of the EU referendum, his “real social Europe” would be by far the most disastrous. Condemning privatisations, calling for support for “public enterprise” (a disingenuous term for nationalisation), and attacking deregulation, Corbyn would throw out everything good about the EU and turn it into a failed socialist bloc.
While there are differences of opinion over whether it’s democratically healthy that the EU restricts state aid and anti-competitive practices, and promotes free movement of capital, goods and people, the gains from these policies in terms of prosperity and freedom cannot be denied.
Within the EU itself, the demolition of barriers has eroded national protectionism and helped to raise living standards Unfortunately, the EU has long used the cover of the Single Market to impose harmonised regulations that counteract the beneficial impact of this liberalisation.
The centralisation of regulation has encouraged huge complexity (rules must be designed to cope with a vast variety of circumstances in starkly different countries), and the lack of democratic accountability means that bad rules don’t get rescinded or replaced. But if these problems could be addressed – a point of contention – the EU’s liberal impulse is to its credit.
In fact, it is probably the strongest argument for voting Remain in June, an argument which would disappear if Corbyn gets his way. And if voters decide that Britain should vote to leave, rejecting Corbyn’s statist policies would be more important still.
There is a real danger that UK politicians would use their new-found powers to pull down the shutters, close the borders and interfere in the economy with relish. But as an excellent new report from Open Europe argues, to make a success of Brexit and to counter any potential negative economic impact, Britain would have to do the exact opposite: embrace free trade, deregulation and economic reform.
In Britain and in Europe, in or out, following Corbyn’s prescription for “progressive change” would be a calamity for all of us.