By Mark Wallace
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Only a couple of years ago, conventional wisdom in Westminster scoffed at the concept of leaving the EU. Yet today we have an in/out referendum on the horizon and the Sunday Times magazine devoting a whole edition to the EU question. How times have changed.
The highlight is Dominic Lawson's essay on his recent visit to Switzerland, in which he explores how the Swiss live outside the EU.
His journey was inspired by David Cameron's put-down to eurosceptics:
“If your vision of Britain is that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests.”
And yet, notes Lawson, Switzerland isn't doing half badly:
"Outside the EU it has thrived, with the lowest unemployment rate on the continent — and in July it signed a trailblazing free-trade deal with China."
"…Britain’s annual net contributions to the EU budget run at over £8bn. While wealthy Switzerland, in return for selective facilitated access to the single market, has paid out a grand total of £860m over the past five years, and retains the right to control how its aid to the poorer EU countries is spent on the ground, rather than allowing it to be channelled through the Brussels bureaucracy."
Inherent to the article is the simple fact that Switzerland disproves so much of the scaremongering put about by those who think we should remain as EU members. Being better off and having control of our own trading relationships with the growing economies outside the EU, while paying far less money to Brussels, seems a very long way from "a complete denial of our national interests".
Lawson also secured a rare interview with Christoph Blocher, the man who funded the 1992 campaign which kept Switzerland as an independent nation. The challenges Blocher faced 20 years ago are likely to be very similar to those the British Out campaign will face in 2017:
"The old political class, the government, the parliament, the business organisations, the unions, they were all for entry.” And why was that? “They were afraid that we were always too small as a nation and that it would be better to be part of something bigger. And perhaps the politicians thought they would have more power."
Despite the institutions heaped against him, he won. Two decades later, the doom predicted by Euro-enthusiasts has not befallen Switzerland, and only 6 per cent of the population support joining the EU. When Paddy Ashdown stood up yesterday to declare that "tens of thousands" of jobs would be lost if Britain became independent – a watered down version of an old falsehood – he should perhaps have borne in mind the egg which has adorned the faces of his counterparts in Switzerland for many years.
The frustration they still feel is evident in Lawson's interview with Christa Markwalder, a representative of the Swiss Liberal Democratic party. She is forced to admit that
"at the moment it’s hopeless, we will never win a popular vote on it."
The Swiss story is precisely what British eurosceptics need. We must put forward a positive, viable vision for our future without the EU – and we must be able to rebut the unfounded fears raised bythe project's fanatics, whether they are talking down Britain's economic capabilities or threatening the prospect of a re-run of World War One.
No-one would suggest a Britain free of Brussels would be exactly like Switzerland – if anything we should seek to be in an even better position. But the prosperous and free existence of the Swiss shows that there is an attractive alternative to being little Europeans, hiding from the world behind trade barriers and handing our democratic rights over to unelected Commissioners while the EU becomes ever less competitive and ever more dysfunctional.
Perhaps it would be most appropriate to leave the last word to that rare beast, a self-confessed "unrepentant EU fanatic" who is willing to tell the truth about how a non-EU Britain would manage its affairs -Wolfgang Munchau:
“Everything would be up for grabs. Britain can negotiate a favourable or a non-favourable deal. My best guess is that an exit would put Britain in a similar situation to Switzerland, which would not exactly be an economic disaster. The UK is a large economy with a small industrial base. For such a country the regulatory burden of the single market outweighs the benefits. There may be reasons why the UK may wish to remain a member of the EU, but whatever they are, they are not economic.”