Leading article

Whether or not Britain leaves, the EU must change or fall apart

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

David Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership has served as a powerful reminder of the case for leaving. The EU is designed in such a way that almost no sensible proposal can be passed. If one member state has a good idea, the other 27 members demand a price for approving it, or they demand concessions until it is completely watered down. If the leader of a country protests, the response is clear: What are you going to do? Walk away? You wouldn’t dare.

The EU’s power-mongering has a cost. The euro has hideously distorted the economies of the member states that adopted it, and the abolition of so many border controls has worsened the immigration crisis — which, in much of Europe, has fostered a political crisis. A new banking crisis may be under way, and all the edicts from Brussels about financial regulation will do little to prevent it. What should have been troubling EU leaders at their summit was not just Britain’s possible exit, but the question of whether the union itself will survive.

It is typical of the EU that the summit should get bogged down in finer points of detail without anyone being able to address the bigger picture. We have had hours and hours of debate over how much child benefit should be paid to the family of a Polish parent working in Britain whose children remain back home. Meanwhile, a more fundamental issue has not been addressed: that western Europe’s generous welfare policies are simply never going to be compatible with mass migration, whether from outside or inside the EU. Cameron sees this problem, and was offering a solution: to ban immigrants from all benefits for four years.

As the Prime Minister recognises, it is one thing for a frontier society like 19th-century America to absorb huge numbers of migrants. Americans had no welfare state and a voracious appetite for work. But the situation is very different when it comes to a continent where economic policy revolves around protecting existing jobs rather than creating new ones, and where there are social policies committing governments to high levels of support for the poor. As Sweden and Germany have shown, generous welfare policies and open borders inevitably end in a nasty collision. If you offer cradle-to-grave security and simultaneously invite the world in, you mustn’t be surprised when the world turns up and starts to drain your exchequer faster than your taxpayers can fill it.


David Cameron’s original proposal sent an important message: come to Britain to work, and don’t expect to be eligible for full social benefits until you have been contributing to the tax system for several years. It is a template which the EU should be adopting. This is the way to reconcile free movement of people with generous benefits: restrict their availability to newcomers. The EU’s failure to recognise this demonstrates that it is structurally unable to respond to such upheavals as the migration crisis.

The UK has been a vocal advocate of the ‘four freedoms’ that the EU purports to stand for: free movement of goods, services, workers and capital. The problem is that the EU itself actively opposes free trade, favouring a morally indefensible policy of overt protectionism. Nearly 60 years after it was founded from the European Coal and Steel Community, and more than 20 years after the foundation of the ‘single market’, the EU has made little progress in opening up cross-border trade in services such as banking and insurance. For an economy like Britain’s, which is heavily based on services, this is a serious failing.

Neither has the EU been particularly successful in opening up trade to the rest of the world. It still has no trade treaty with Japan, for instance. We are forever being told by the ‘in’ campaign that we have to be in the EU in order to gain the extra weight that it takes to negotiate international trade deals. Yet independent Switzerland has managed to sort out a treaty with Japan. Why can’t the EU?

The EU’s biggest problem is that its economic and social policies are unsustainable. It is ridiculous that taxpayers must subsidise farmers even when they are producing little food. The euro has been propped up for the time being, but the strain of imposing a single currency and a single interest rate on very different economies will start to tell again soon. As for migration, forget the lofty ideals — just look at what member states are doing: putting up fences as they comprehend the cost of open borders.

David Cameron once promised us a fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Some hoped he would be able to reshape the EU as the simple free trade bloc which it should have been all along. But the events of the last few weeks and months have made it clear that fundamental reform is not on offer. The EU has again frustrated Britain.

And many in Brussels will be delighted that it has done so. Some may toast our departure, in the event that we decide to leave. Yet sooner or later the day will come when the EU will be forced to reinvent itself along these lines if it is to survive at all.

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Show comments
  • Rik

    Merkel has doomed the EU in its current form,the violence that will erupt if they try to deport economic migrants will be ferocious.The choice is simple,shackle ourselves to this rotting corpse or leave and choose our own destiny.

    • Jacobi

      The violence will spread everywhere, including here. The question is, who will win?

  • stickywicket

    THe most surprising thing to me is that the very high levels of unemployment across the continent have not led to significant civil unrest.

    It’s almost as if the people of EU countries have accepted the religion of the EU as the only answer.

    • goodsoldier

      Brainwashing by schools (both private and state) and the media has been going on for at least forty years now. People don’t know anything but what they are told over and over again. Only the strong minded can resist this pull: these people want out of the EU. They know it will be a matter of life and death. It already is. We will soon see how shallow the U.K. has become. Boris will be a glaring example of this in the next few days.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Increasingly, I distrust Boris. It’s so transparent that he’s waiting to see which way the wind blows, until the last minute. His political career is at stake, and sod everything else.

  • IMBMB

    It seems to me Dave has an impossible task of obeying his European Masters and keeping Britain in Europe lest others get the same idea. This is balanced against the blindingly obvious to the citizens who can now see we are no longer a sovereign nation.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    “It is typical of the EU that the summit should get bogged down in finer
    points of detail without anyone being able to address the bigger
    picture.”

    That’s because the founders and other major players of the EU, apart from the UK, are not interested in addressing the “bigger picture” since this might threaten the fundamentals including “ever closer union”. Those social & economic policies are indeed unsustainable. We need to leave the EU anyway, if we are to protect our ancient status as a sovereign nation, but it is all the more important that we get out before things turn nasty.

    • Marvin

      The cleverest idea that the EU has had is the “Free movement of people” knowing that half a billion EU migrants will be entitled to come to Britain for work and benefits, in work or not, so we end up with the burden of looking out for the people of 27 other countries. How stupid for our politicians not to realise this.

      • Hamburger

        I don’t think they thought it through.

  • Uusikaupunki

    Nearly two decades ago, Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman
    admonished the Wall Street Journal for its idée
    fixe on open-border immigration policy. “It’s just obvious you
    can’t have free immigration and a welfare state,” he warned.

    When will the EU learn?

    • goodsoldier

      Never. Too many people get rich on this ponzi scheme. They are all Madoffs. Very few are honestly and innocently delusional.

  • Gebhard Von Blucher

    For some time now the writing has been on the wall for the EU as it is currently constituted, but the Euro-elite just cannot see it. They seem to be trapped in some La-La Land where everything will turn out for the best just because they wish it to be so. I was a Euro-federalist but the Project has gone seriously awry and we now have the wrong “Europe”.

    • newminster

      Hear, hear!
      All the more reason for the UK to stay in and be part if the orderly (we hope) disintegration because goodness only knows what the mess will be like and we’ll have no influence when it happens. Pity that there are so many that can’t (or won’t) see that.

  • Marvin

    The pro EU side always claim that EU migration is beneficial to our economy and put in much more than they take out. SO! can they please explain this simple mathematical problem. If every migrant with children steps on British soil can claim child benefits, housing and JLS from the start, and the husband gets a job that does not qualify for tax yet and claims tax credits on top, how are they putting in more than they take out. If 2/3 million migrants are claiming most of these benefits while in work, how are what they claim in total less then the taxes they pay?

    • And the school places and medical needs.

    • newminster

      Do you know what percentage of EU immigrant workers are in receipt of benefits as opposed to those who are paying tax?
      If not why not go and find out and then you can tell us and either we will say you were right or you can apologise for the insult to foreign workers.
      I don’t know the answer but given the number of EU citizens who work in the UK I’m prepared to bet that on balance (and allowing for the fact that many of them are doing jobs that Brits evidently consider beneath them — else why are they not doing them) their presence is beneficial. It’s not the legal European workers that are creating the problem. Work it out.

  • Davedeparis

    The thing is though, that the EU never will change. The EU is run by highly educated but unbelievably stubborn people devoted to massively stupid ideas and is simply incapable of reform. They even take perverse delight, as Shultz did last week, in explaining in detail the technocratic reasons why alas their hands are tied.

  • WFC

    “The most puzzling development in politics during the last decade is the apparent determination of Western European leaders to re-create the Soviet Union in Western Europe.”

    ― Mikhail Gorbachev

  • lakelander

    On the basis of Cameron’s failure to negotiate the terms he originally set out he should now be campaigning for Leave. What a let-down he is.

    • He had a mandate from us to end welfare payments for EU migrants for four years, there really was nothing to negotiate in them circumstances.

  • John Carins

    Idiots like Heath, Wilson, Major and Blair have led us to this situation. Now we have another spineless idiot, Cameron who cannot stand up for Britain. Let the people deliver us from the EU and make Britain sovereign again.

    • newminster

      Is it no longer possible for Spectator readers to disagree with a Prime Minister’s policies without calling him a “spineless idiot? I thought the standard of manners around here was higher than that.

      • John Carins

        Calling Cameron a “spineless idiot” is perhaps too kind. He is a deceiver and unprincipled.

  • John Carins

    The Tories all believe that Corbyn is a divisive figure on the left. Cameron is about to become Corbyn’s mirror image.

  • Jacobi

    Increasingly we see similarities between Cameron and Wellington. Wellington was most interested in Europe and spent a lot of time on it. He recognised UK as part of Europe as does Cameron.

    But Europe had to be sorted out. Then, it was the French and to some extent the Prussians. The rest, the Duke of Orange, for example, they were a nuisance. Now it is the Germans and in particular Merkel who has to be sorted out.

    Cameron will get his “deal” whatever that is, and come back to UK, win his in-vote, but to sort out the real problem here, one of the great “unmentionables” in British politics. That is the extent of legal Muslim immigration into the UK from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, now running at frightening levels.

    Cameron has his weakness as did Wellington. He does not realise the extent that the rest of Europe is impotently worrying about the shambolic mess Merkel has created by her crass invitation to Islam.

    • Jacobi

      And now we hear he has his deal, and I am sure he will get his in-vote. So, perhaps he can now deal with the real problem!

  • Julian Keogh

    The question is, how can anyone possibly want the EU to fall apart, whose interest might this serve the most? It is interesting that eurosceptics seem to be fond of this idea but have no idea what it might implicate for the security, safety and well being of people in this part of the world. What is their model for a post EU Europe, how can you prevent isolationism and fascism gaining the upper hand in such a Europe….havent we been there before? Since they want a change in the status quo it is surely incumbent upon eurosceptics to develop an alternate model that considers modern realities, instead of merely complaining about the status quo, which is all they really do. In fairess they havent really had the time to develop something coherent but dont we have the right to debate individual issues in the same way that individual issues were debated in the Scottish referendum, where a paper was drawn up? All the eurosceptics are selling is the idea that the grass is greener on the other side without even actually knowing how green or indeed brown it might be. I want solutions, not just continuous moaning and groaning. I think there are good geostratigic reaons to want to keep Britain in the EU and the EU stable. A fractured Europe in a multipolar world would be mannah to out competitors and enemies….easier to divide, rule and control. It might see the end of this part of the world as a prosperous entity and the beginning of much darker times. Noone seems to be seriously considering these implications.

  • Maureen Fisher

    The issue as Frank Field has pointed out is not benefits but protecting our borders and deciding whom we let in and who we kick out. Simple as that.

  • artemis in france

    Britain should have long ago adopted the French policy regarding child benefit where no money is paid unless the child is attending school, be it nursery or more senior. By definition this must be a French school. Mechanisms are firmly in place to provide the requisite proof but Britain hasn’t evolved any of its procedures to prevent such flagrant abuses. The same applies to the NHS where staff seem unable to understand that non-Brits shouldn’t be allowed access all services free of charge. More fool you.

  • The Masked Marvel

    Can we take this as evidence that Spectator staff are just as split on Brexit as the Tories? Or are the Europhiles amongst you finally waking up to reality? Change is sometimes for the best.

    • Giambologna

      I would imagine most of the writers and readers would support leaving, but Fraser Nelson the editor is a self-proclaimed europhile – http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/apr/18/fraser-nelson-spectator-editor-put-money-on-ed-miliband

      “I am a soppy Europhile who speaks a second language at home. The idea of a united Europe was one that really excited me when I was younger, and which I love now.” How Nelson’s enthusiasm for Europe will play out in the Spectator’s pages in the event of an EU referendum is, he concedes, “a good question”.

      This puts him in a difficult position, which is probably why the above article is non-committal, whilst purporting to be eurosceptic.

      • The Masked Marvel

        Fraser laid out his Europhile bona fides in a short piece here not long ago in which, with a heavy heart, he criticised Cameron and his dealings. I’m sure he is not alone, as the younger metropolitan types are clearly on his side, as can been seen in their writing and commentary. Rod Liddle makes Eurosceptic noises, but it’s only when he’s in that mood, and one can never take his polemics on these things too seriously.
        The above article is one of those rhetorical questions journalists think they need to ask in order to play the objective observer. This one is particularly irritating as we all know Cameorn can’t meet the targets, and Ms Hardman and her colleagues have all written at some point that he cannot do so. This one could have been handled better.

        • Giambologna

          I agree with you. The Spectator editorials are one of its weakest features, probably because of compromise, but also I suspect, because its guiding hands are metropolitan liberal friends or supporters of Cameron, and so they normally criticise him in the vein of ‘he should be doing more’.

          • The Masked Marvel

            I actually gave credit to Fraser at the time for telling it straight on the EU. He probably has to tread a very delicate, thin line between the Spectator being openly Cameroon (more of an impetus than being Europhile, I think) and taking an openly critical editorial line. The latter will lead to constant grief from Craig Oliver and top Remainiacs, and the former would cause a loss of respect from many quarters.
            There must be a better way to play neutral or impartial, though.

          • Giambologna

            I don’t think you really can be neutral in this instance. Hence these articles are educated dross. Fortunately, the Spectator does often commission good writers from opposing sides, so we get more interest there.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Dr David Owen has come out:

    “To remain in the EU is in my judgement a more
    dangerous option for British security in its deepest sense – economic,
    political, military and social – than is being admitted or
    even discussed in the wake of Cameron’s failed negotiations…

    This UK referendum is, like all previous referendums, a
    once-in-a-generation opportunity. There are many positive aspects to
    leaving the EU. We will make our own laws again in our own parliament.
    We will rediscover the skills of blue-water diplomacy and rise to
    the challenge of global markets. It could be the spark we need to
    re-energise our nation.

    The pre-eminent need will be to become more productive and
    competitive, something driven by investing in research and training and
    through welcoming immigration from people from different countries who
    can contribute most to our economy and to our quality of life. These are
    changes that have a cost attached to them but they are necessary in or
    out of the EU. They have been largely ducked by political leaders in all
    parties in recent years. They cannot be ducked any longer if we decide
    to leave. That in a nutshell is the case for leaving: a challenge and an
    opportunity.”

  • maic

    Not daring to walk away? Is that what the EU bureaucrats assume? Come on Brits, take back control of your country.
    Are you going to tell me that a country which once controlled a vast empire now lacks the skills and motivation to make the necessary adjustment if or when you decide to bug out of the EU.

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