The case for British membership of the EU has always rested primarily on the country’s participation in the single market. The CER’s commission on the UK and the single market held its first meeting this week. It will examine whether participation in the EU helps or hinders Britain’s economy. If the referendum on EU membership takes place, the commission’s report will provide balanced evidence to help the UK make its decision.
Membership of the EU cannot be weighed solely in pounds and pence. But in a period of economic stagnation, any decision about membership will be shaped by the pecuniary costs and benefits. Unfortunately, the British debate has lacked objective analysis of these, with both eurosceptics and europhiles using evidence selectively to make their case. As the UK is not a member of the eurozone, and is unlikely to join, an appraisal of EU membership should centre on the single market.
Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, and Brian Bender, former permanent secretary at the UK business department, introduced the discussion at the inaugural meeting of the commission. There was broad agreement that Britain only has two choices: leave the EU and withdraw from formal participation in the single market, or stay in. Commissioners ruled out a third option: that of joining the European Economic Area. Theoretically, Britain could be in the single market, but not in the EU. The EEA provides Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein with free access to the single market, but they have to sign up to its rules, and have no say over what the rules are. As one reason for dissatisfaction with EU membership is the loss of sovereignty over rule-making, it was felt that this would be worse than either staying in or leaving.
Few commissioners thought that leaving would be an economic disaster for Britain. There would be little significant impact on jobs, because the level of employment was largely determined by how well the British labour market matched the demand for and supply of workers, rather than the amount of trade that the UK conducts with Europe.
The impact of exit on national income was more contentious. Many estimates put the economic gains from membership of the single market at around 2 per cent of GDP. But some commissioners argued that the immediate impact of leaving would be closer to zero. Others argued that there would be a small negative impact on UK national income in the short term, but there would be a steady erosion of Britain’s attractiveness as a location for foreign investment.
Commissioners questioned whether leaving the EU would allow Britain to extricate itself completely from EU rules in any case. The EU would remain the UK’s largest trading partner, and companies exporting to the rest of Europe would have to conform to EU product standards.
The second option was stay in the EU on current or renegotiated terms. Some commissioners thought that cherry-picking the single market – repatriating social and employment rules, for example – was not really on the table because it would be unacceptable to the other member-states.
One British interest was deepening the single market. A second was making the EU regulate less. Some participants questioned whether these two interests were compatible. The UK liked the single market, but did not like the transfer of rule-making power to Brussels that further integration would entail. So it faced an uncomfortable choice: it may have to cede more sovereignty in order to get more out of its economic relationship with the rest of Europe. And if it decides to promote integration, it may in any case be difficult to get other member-states to sign up to a deeper single market. Countries like France were cooler on the single market than Britain, and their priority was addressing the eurozone’s problems, rather than furthering trade integration. But a focus of the CER’s commission should be the policies needed to open markets in industries in which the UK has a comparative advantage.
Commissioners were divided on whether Britain should seek to reform the EU to make it a less active regulator. Participants from the business world said that the European Commission and Parliament had become hyper-active and too keen to regulate, which was costly for Britain. Others disagreed, and said that EU regulation hardly tied up Britain’s economy in red tape: by OECD measures, Britain had among the least regulated labour and product markets in the developed world. The EU’s institutions had failings, they said, but also benefits for the UK: the EU acted as a counterweight to national protectionism; and a common external trade negotiator had more bargaining power than Britain would wield on its own.
The commission meetings that follow will take evidence from experts in particular areas of the single market: the free movement of labour, of goods and services, and of capital, to assess whether the single market works for Britain in these areas. The report, which will be published in the spring of 2014, will provide a cool-headed appraisal of the UK’s two options. If commissioners find that staying in would be best for Britain, the report will propose reforms to deepen Britain’s trade integration with Europe.
John Springford is secretary to the commission and a CER research fellow. More details about the commission can be found here.
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