Unanswered Questions about 'Europe.'

By Miles, Patrick | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Unanswered Questions about 'Europe.'


Miles, Patrick, Contemporary Review


Hardly had I finished my article for last month's Contemporary Review complaining that Gordon Brown had taken three months not to answer my letter asking him what the tangible benefits of EU membership are, when I received a reply. It came from the Foreign Office.

Setting aside the presentation, typos and grammatical errors in this two-page document, I admit it is a good letter. I will examine its contents in a moment. First, I note that a letter addressed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been answered by an official of the Foreign Secretary's.

The reason I wrote to the Chancellor and not any other minister is that the Chancellor manages those things that have the most immediate material impact on our lives: taxes, benefits, our ability to buy things and subsist. He seemed the best-qualified person to tell me what the tangible benefits to me of paying my EU contributions have been, when despite my European credentials I could not perceive them. Further, Gordon Brown is reputed to be a passionate supporter of British membership of the EU and the single currency, so I assumed he would have the answers at his finger-tips.

Of course, one should not read too much into a buck being passed from one department to another. Inevitably, though, in the present case it seems significant. The Foreign Office has not given me a detailed explanation of how EU membership has enhanced my material existence, my 'standard of living', because that is not its job. The official who has signed its letter defends membership first and foremost in terms of foreign policy: 'Membership provides an opportunity to pursue Britain's interests in Europe constructively, without threat to our national identity'. This answer is what one would expect of a Foreign Office. I have no difficulty in accepting British membership as an instrument of foreign policy.

Perhaps I should clarify what may seem an unhealthy obsession with 'tangible' benefits. I am not so materialistic as to believe that only tangible benefits matter. I discussed the 'intangible' benefits in my previous article and will return to them shortly. However, if every working person in Britain is paying into the EU budget between one and two pounds every week, it is natural to ask whether there are tangible benefits as well. These contributions are in effect a tax and most of our domestic tax has demonstrable tangible benefits. In any case, my attention as a small businessman has been focussed on the tangible dimension by the fact that certain EU finance ministers' plans to 'harmonise' taxes would sweep my tangible base away.

What I am concerned to establish is what the real benefits to us of EU membership are, whether tangible or intangible. The only tangible benefits I can identify are cheaper, more available European foodstuffs (which would be even cheaper if the Common Agricultural Policy were reformed). I do not enjoy any EU grants or local EU-funded projects and if I did it would be tempting, when Britain is a net contributor, to regard them simply as British taxpayers' money recycled. It is often said that it is easier to travel around Europe than before 1973, but I honestly do not notice the difference. The single market does not bring my translation business more work, because most of the continental economies are stagnant and our local clients' exports have dwindled. This presumably explains why the Foreign Office's account of the economic benefits of Britain's membership is so limp: 'Since we joined the Community in 1973, our trade with the EU has grown twice as fast as with the rest of the world'. The statement may be mathematically correct, but we also do four times more trade with the rest of the world, the Office of National Statistics tells us that our EU exports and imports are falling, and the British and continental economic cycles look as though they are permanently divergent. 'Our membership,' the Foreign Office writer continues, 'is a crucial factor in attracting inward investment into the UK'. …

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