Is Britain sleepwalking towards the exit door from the European Union under David Cameron, as Ed Miliband fears, or will the prime minister wake up and smell the coffee before making his on-again speech about Europe?
As a country we’ve never really got Europe since belatedly arriving at the party. We demand always to be treated as a special case, like the spoiled brat at a sleepover. Westminster politicians bewail their loss of influence while blocking efforts to improve direct EU democracy.
Press coverage driven by owners who prefer to turn nation against nation – usually England v Germany, but any Johnny Foreigner will do for the likes of Simon Heffer – has been another obstacle to understanding that the EU was always about greater economic and political integration for the benefit of its people, not just a free-for-all for big business and the hated Eurocrats.
People are entitled to ask what Brussels has done for us. One answer is that it would have been a lot more without opt-outs from the employment directives intended to give workers some protections in a single market of 500 million, or the Schengen agreement on open borders that enshrines freedom of movement within Europe – giving true meaning to the exhortation to get on your bike to look for work while giving labour the power to seek the highest wages.
There is loose talk of Europeans from poorer countries swamping the nation from Boston to Bognor, as if nary a Brit ever decamped for the Costas or Corfu. No mention of the businesses young Poles and Portugese are setting up in otherwise empty shops on our high streets? They’re hardly a drain on the benefits system – more a reminder to the supermarkets to boost the choice of continental foods on their shelves.
The growing number of UK students taking degrees on the European mainland, to escape ever increasing tuition fees, find their horizons expand beyond the passport control queues at our borders.
Business doesn’t entirely get it, with some in the City backing an in or out referendum, apparently oblivious that quitting the EU will hasten takeover deals that relocate the financial capital of Europe to anywhere but this island Square Mile. But they’re the bankers, the forex and futures dealers with only tougher regulation to anticipate as the Eurozone tries to head off another mauling by speculators and ratings agencies accountable to no-one.
In the real economy should the UK step outside the single market, with no special deals likely, watch the Chinese, Japanese and Indian owners of manufacturing businesses in the Midlands or the North start to shut their factories here and shift across the channel.
The EU is far from perfect but you can’t change the rules of a club from outside. When Tories and Ukip talk about diluting Britain’s membership and repatriating powers, or quitting the EU altogether, they’re proposing to surrender influence over the people with whom we do at least half of our business. That’s not a recipe for the job creation and living wages the UK’s young people need, but for a perpetual cycle of decline in a low-wage economy with a shrinking role on the world stage.
Is that the legacy David Cameron wants? This week we will have part of the answer.