Slavish Europhiles like Richard Branson have, as usual, got it wrong. Instead of praising the bloc, we should be prepared to walk away, writes JOHN MILLS
RICHARD BRANSON’s observations about the EU and the euro, voiced on the Andrew Marr show last weekend, reveal once again that successful businesspeople are often far from good judges of either economic or political developments.
Branson claimed that if we were part of the euro right now, our currency would be a lot cheaper. He seems unaware that the pound has fallen in value against the euro. In the early 2000s £1 would buy you €1.65, whereas now it buys about €1.38.
Branson also seems to think that if we were outside the EU tariffs on trade with the EU would be at a prohibitively high level, depriving us of access to the European market.
Actually if we were no longer members the average tariff on British exports to the EU would be about 2.5 per cent, but even this entirely manageable scenario is extremely unlikely to materialise. EU exports to Britain are far larger than ours to them, so the likelihood of a trade war breaking out is close to zero.
Apart from the fact that Branson was way out on these basic facts, his general love affair with the EU seems increasingly misplaced. Who wants “ever-closer union” making us part of a United States of Europe?
In 2014 our net contribution to the EU, taking everything into account, came to £11.4 billion. Who thinks this is good value for money? Who really wants to see us in either the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy? Who believes that a sensible immigration policy should allow unlimited numbers of people to migrate to Britain from Eastern Europe while we turn away Indian computer programmers and Chinese students? Who thinks it is better to have social legislation produced in Brussels than Westminster? Who thinks it is better to have unelected officials running our affairs rather than politicians we can vote out at elections? The answer in all cases is very few.
The fact is that we have a unique chance to refashion our relationship with the EU over the coming few years. The eurozone is going to have to become much more tightly integrated if the single currency is to survive. We are never going to join the euro, so some kind of special status for Britain will have to be negotiated if we are to stay in the EU.
This is what will give us the chance to achieve the kind of relationship we want if we are prepared to fight for it, rather than becoming ever more tightly integrated. If the eurozone countries want this kind of future, we should not stand in their way, but we do not need or want to be a part of it.
The problem with people like Branson is that, by making it crystal clear that they would vote to stay in the EU irrespective of the current renegotiation, they make it more difficult for Britain to negotiate the terms we want. No-one is going to make concessions to us in Brussels if the result of the forthcoming referendum is seen as a foregone conclusion for staying in.
The trouble with Branson’s attitude is that it may lead to exactly the opposite result to the one he and people like him want — either an “out” vote or such a feeble vote in favour of staying in that nothing changes as a large proportion of Britain feels that they’ve been short-changed.
The reality is that Branson and many others like him were wrong on the euro and are wrong now in saying that Britain should not make a big effort to get our terms of membership changed.
To achieve a satisfactory long-term settlement, we need to be willing to fight for it and to do this we have to be prepared to walk away if we don’t achieve an acceptable conclusion, as every negotiator knows.