By Paul Goodman
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In any EU referendum…
The Confederation of British Industry polled company chairman during the run-up to the 1975 referendum on the Common Market. It found that 415 out out 419 of those surveyed wanted to stay in. Much has changed over the 35 years that has passed since: the nature of the European project for "ever-closer union" is more clear; one of the two main parties is overwhelmingly Euro-sceptic; the press is less supportive of the grand European project, but it is also less powerful (given the rise of the net) and its standing is lower; politicians have less status and society is less deferential.
Much is also the same. "Europe" is nowhere near the top of the electorate's list of priorities. In the absence of a referendum to concentrate people's minds, polls show strong support for withdrawal. Middle class voters are more supportive of the EU than working class voters, and older people are less favourable to it than younger ones. Now as then, Europe itself is suffering from hard times. In the mid-1970s, households were ravaged by inflation, which by the time of the referendum had reached 25 per cent in Britain; today, the continent is threatened by the failure of the Euro (though, as then, voters are more likely to worry about rising prices and higher bills).
…The view of business will be decisive…
Euro break-up could breathe life into the stillborn dream of Britain leading a coalition of the "outs", as Germany presses ahead with a bratwurst Euro into which France is unhappily bound. But it would be sensible to presume from last week's summit that in any future negotiation we may be on our own. Since the EU exports more to us than we do to it, a trade war is no more in our neighbours' interest than it is in ours, and any pitch by this Government for a major renegotiation (to which the LibDems might well assent in the wake of a break-up of the Euro and the consequent recasting of the EU) could be successful.
But, again, it would be wise to assume that this may not be the case. The Euro may survive (though this is now very unlikely, and even more unlikely if Greece and some of the other PIIGS don't leave it, either willingly or unwillingly). But whether it does or doesn't, Sarkozy's and Merkel's behaviour last week reminds us that politicians don't always act reasonably, and are prone to cut off their noses to spite their voters' face. Any British bid for renegotiation could be rejected out of hand. Such an outcome would silence the discussion about repatriating powers and leave only one question audible: In or Out?
…Which is why a successor to Business for Sterling is required.
France would be alarmed at the prospect of a Europe's other main military power, which like it has a seat on the U.N Security Council, using a more vibrant economic approach to out-compete it – the low tax, free trade, low cost Anglo-Saxon model which it has always detested. It would not be alone – especially given Britain's place as the EU's second-biggest contributor. Vague but baleful warnings about a trade war would emanate from our neighbours and be echoed by our own Euro-enthusiasts. In the event of the dislocation that would follow the collapse of the Euro, rational debate about WTO rules would be in danger of being drowned out.
These are unpredictable times, and no-one knows how David Cameron would respond in the event of a diplomatic war over the use of EU institutions to regulate new arrangements to govern the Euro, or were a major repatriation of powers package for Britain to be dismissed out of hand by the rest of the E.U. But we do know that most voters are less concerned about sovereignty than money, and that the political class is far less respected than in 1975. Now as then the view of business is decisive. No referendum campaign for a repatriation of powers package or for withdrawal would succeed in the event of such business polls as the one that opened this article.
Any takers for "Business for Britain"?
Better Off Out, the People's Pledge, the Daily Express campaign against the EU, the Euro-sceptic press consensus that stretches from the Murdoch papers to the Daily Mail, the fabulous writing of Daniel Hannan – all these have helped to set the intellectual fashion on the EU during the last few years, and their push against it has been more or less unopposed outside the liberal redoubts of the BBC and the Guardian. (The small band of Conservative euro-enthusiast MPs has been too scared to date of deselection to put up much a fight, with a few honourable exceptions such as Robert Walter and – all credit to him for sticking to his guns – Ken Clarke.)
There are signs in the wake of the summit that this is beginning to change. Coughing noises have emerged from the offices of the CBI. BBC journalists sympathetic to the EU are already taking soundings. The Financial Times has reported that opinion in the City is divided. This is a reminder that business has moved on since 1975. During the late 1990s, Business for Sterling played a crucial part in helping to mobilise opinion against the Euro. It needs a successor with all-party support – with the kind of backing that Rodney Leach was able to mobilise and the sort of campaining that Nick Herbert and others were able to provide. It also needs a name. My suggestion for starters is Business for Britain.