In the latest issue of The Economist, a correspondent – Dewi Williams, a senior lecturer in European law at Staffordshire University – writes in to complain about the unfairness of the British dislike of the European Union. Williams argues that the reason why the EU is unpopular in Britain is because the EU hasn’t done enough to promote itself, and the benefits of EU membership.
It’s important to point out, first, that Williams is calling for the use of British money to fund EU propaganda aimed at the British themselves. Democratic governments are not supposed to behave in this way, because they derive their legitimacy not from propaganda, but from the consent of the governed. But of course, the EU isn’t a democracy and lacks that consent, which is why its supporters feel it needs to engage in propaganda. And the EU feels the same way, which is why it already spends lots of money selling itself to the peoples of Europe.
But Williams goes on to list the supposed unappreciated benefits of EU membership for Britain. Here they are: “retirement to Spain, capital investment in Britain’s poorest regions, cheap Italian and French wines and the now ubiquitous tapas bars in almost every town and city in Britain”.
Retirement to Spain? The influx of British retirees to Spain helped fuel the Spanish property bubble, which makes the American one look small, and which, as it deflates, has devastated the Spanish economy and created pressure to break out of the Euro. Undoubtedly, life in Spain is very pleasant if you’re a British retiree with a reasonable income. But Americans retire to Mexico without needing a political union to make it possible. Retirees are basically rich tourists who don’t leave, and virtually every nation in the world promotes tourism. In other words, Spanish hospitality to wealthy British retirees is a matter of Spanish self-interest. If the argument is that the EU is needed to force Spain to accept British retirees who it would otherwise prefer to exclude – and there is no evidence for this – then it is based explicitly on the fact that the EU is not a democracy.
Capital investment in Britain’s poorest regions? That is undoubtedly welcome. Of course, since public spending currently accounts for 57 percent of the economy in England’s North West and 67 percent in Wales and Northern Ireland, investment from Europe into Britain does not appear to have done the trick. But its existence – once again – is a matter of self-interest, this time on the part of both Britain and the European investors. As a matter of historical fact, Britain was open to foreign investment long before it joined the EU. Indeed, it is far more open than the supposedly Euro-friendly nation of France, where foreign investors face well-documented political obstacles and an entrenched elite that is basically suspicious of them.
It’s also worth considering why investors decide to invest in a particular location. One excellent reason is that the business climate there – in particular, the tax structure – is better than it is elsewhere. But the EU is slowly moving towards a policy of tax harmonization – in other words, a policy that would eliminate the ability of poorer regions to attract employers with low taxes. If the argument is that investors chose to invest in Britain because of its proximity and access to the European market, that is undoubtedly partly true – but it is also true that if Britain were out of the EU and the EU discriminated against imports from it, this would be a violation of WTO rules. To the extent that those rules would not protect Britain, it is because of enduring EU protectionism. So the EU has little to do with this, and less than nothing to offer going forward on these grounds.
From the nonsensical, we move to the silly. Cheap Italian and French wine? We have that in the United States too, which suggests that the existence of the EU might be an irrelevancy. If there were no cheap Italian wine to be found in Britain, there could be three reasons for this: either the British didn’t like it and so there was no market for it (which would be their own affair), or Italy forbade its export (which would be stupid, but would again be their own affair), or the British government protected against it (which would also be stupid, and in addition a violation of WTO rules). Or, if this point is meant as a defense of the Common Agricultural Policy, it fails to take into account the enormous costs of that program, both for British consumers and poor farmers around the world. This is really not a point the EU wants to boast about.
How about those famous tapas bars, which appear to be the only real benefit of EU membership? Well, we have those in the United States as well, so evidently the EU isn’t entirely responsible for their existence. But Britain isn’t a nation of tapas bars. It’s a nation of Indian restaurants, of which it has well over 50,000, and which have contributed enormously to the improvement of life in Britain. And of course those restaurants have nothing to do with the EU: they owe their existence to the Empire and the Commonwealth. If you want to focus specifically on continental cuisine, Britain’s leading twentieth century light was Elizabeth David, who published Italian Food in 1954, before the EU came into existence, and who inspired the revival of cooking in England that’s exemplified by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.
The reason why Euroskepticism exists in Britain is not because the EU doesn’t do enough propaganda. That is just a lightly disguised way of arguing that the British are ignorant and need to be shown the light by their betters. It is because the advantages offered by EU membership are highly exaggerated, because advocates of Europe have a bad track record of making statements about the merits of the EU that look very silly in retrospect, and because the EU is an elitist, undemocratic institution that persists in talking down to the peoples of Europe. Which, of course, is why its supporters play the game of confusing Europe with the EU, and why they are eager to make the case that the EU needs to spend more of their money selling itself.