There are three main reasons why the European Union is a good thing: the idealistic, the pragmatic and the selfish.

First, the idealistic: the EU has brought peace and stability to Europe . In a continent where every generation from the fall of the Roman Empire until 1945 went out and fought each other on battlefields, this is simply a much better way of settling our differences. Of course we still have rows – but around a negotiating table. War between European countries is now unthinkable.

Second, the pragmatic: we need a structure for finding common solutions to common problems with our neighbouring countries. The EU is where countries of our continent get together to agree (or not) on common policies when they decide that it is mutually beneficial to do so. We are highly interdependent economically and environmentally, and we face common threats and challenges on matters like international crime, terrorism and so on. It makes sense to work together.

Third, the selfish: Britain is a trading nation and nearly 60% of our exports go to other European Union countries. We sell more just to Holland than to the whole of the Commonwealth. Three and half million jobs nationally and over three hundred thousand in Yorkshire depend on such exports. It is in our interest to be around the table when the common rules for that common market are adopted.

Indeed, the bulk of European Union laws are rules for what is now the world’s largest free market. And many of those rules are intended to make life easier for business, cutting red tape and bureaucracy. This is done by adopting common standards and rules so that businesses face a single set, rather than 27 different ones. For instance it is now possible to register a trademark once, valid across Europe , instead of facing 27 different registration procedures with attendant forms and fees.

Other EU laws are to protect people. For instance, having a common system across Europe for labelling food stuffs – the famous E numbers on our jars – enables people with allergies to see easily what to avoid. Common Europe-wide laws to protect the environment are more effective as pollution doesn’t stop at boundaries. A common competition policy has protected consumers from national monopolies and multinational companies alike, perhaps most visible in the airline market where cheaper flights have enabled millions to enjoy European travel.

Of course, the European Union can sometimes get things wrong. Like local government and national government, mistakes can be made, and when this happens, they must be rectified. The Common Agricultural Policy, set up before Britain joined, is an example of a policy needing reform. But it is being reformed: until recently it accounted for 70 per cent of the EU budget – now it is only 38 per cent and falling. The “butter mountain” and the “beef mountain” are distant memories. Export subsidies are going. More must be done, but reform is underway.

Some Eurosceptics claim that we would be far better off opting out of individual policies, (as if it were an “a la carte” menu that you can pick and choose from). They focus in particular on fishing. But managing fish stocks can only be done by agreement, as fish have the unfortunate habit of swimming from one country’s waters to another. It would be pointless to agree strict limits within British waters if other countries show no restraint. That is why, like it or not, we have to go through the difficult negotiations every year of agreeing quotas with our neighbouring countries.

In this context it is worth underlining that EU laws are not “diktats from Brussels “. The European Commission in Brussels (which, by the way, has fewer employees than Leeds City Council) only has the right to put forward proposals (and to implement what has been agreed). The actual adoption of legislation is done by the elected governments of European countries through their ministers meeting in the EU Council of Ministers. The Ministers are scrutinised by Scrutiny Committees in both the Commons and the Lords. In addition, most EU laws also require the approval of the directly elected MEPs in the European Parliament. Indeed, compared to any other international structure (think of the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank etc.) EU actions are subject to far more democratic accountability. So when somebody blames “Brussels” for something, remember that it is elected British politicians who have taken part in the decision – and if you don’t like it, blame them!

Eurosceptics sometimes dwell on the cost of the European Union. As with any expenditure you can make it sound far bigger by adding what it costs over several years, or far smaller by defining it in other ways. What is the reality? The EU budget amounts to only 1% of GDP, scarcely a “Federal” budget. Britain ‘s net contribution is £4.5billion which amounts to £1.44 per person per week. Another way to look at it is to note that it represents a mere 15 per cent of what we spend on defence. Given what it contributes to our security, wellbeing, prosperity and our environment, it is a price well worth paying.

 

First published before the last round of enlargement here by Richard Corbett.