Robert Oulds’ book, Everything You Wanted to Know About the EU, published in 2013, is still timely and even more relevant than when first published; I doubt whether any of its central contentions have been subsequently disproved, and all we have to welcome are some updates on the statistics which are probably likely to further confirm his central contentions. In fact some of the events since 2013, specifically the Syrian immigration crisis, must add more weight to his position. But to be clear at the outset: Robert Oulds is the Director of the Bruges Group, which for the last 20 years has been campaigning for the UK exit from the EU. So, partisan? Yes, but being partisan does not disqualify one from having an informed opinion, or further from even being right. The purpose of criticism is to see the object for what it is and to do that one has to understand one’s own subjectivity first and build that into the equation. This I think Robert Oulds has admirably done; and for the integrity of this review I ought to disclose that I have known Robert for several years and regard him as a friend. With that in mind, what of his book?
The book contains a brief introduction and then has 7 meaty chapters covering in more detail than most people would like the economic, legal, political, historical workings of the EU, especially as they relate to the UK. The titles of the chapters are: A Snapshot of the EU, The Trouble with the EU, A Question of Influence, The Choices for Britain, Which Way Out, The Implications of Withdrawal, Alternatives to the EU, and these are followed by a Concluding chapter and a couple of useful appendices. There has been much criticism recently of the quality of the debate: that it lacks real information, real analysis, and is all about ‘bullet-points’ each side fires at the other. Well, if you feel that is the case, read this book. Instead of bullet points, Oulds provides chapter, verse and statistics on all the key issues; further, he also provides a balanced commentary. To put that in perspective: where the EU does benefit the UK he is not slow in admitting it. But with Oulds, the key issue is always the balance of arguments: the cost-benefit analysis in other words, so that in reading the book one increasingly feels that although there are some good things about being in the EU, yet there are so many negatives too that the position of remaining there to any rational mind is untenable.
What, then, of some of his arguments? What have I found especially compelling in reading this work? First, I do like his general observations about how things work. This is like discussing first principles. A good example occurs in chapter 2, The Trouble with the EU, when he observes: “Political unions are not needed for trade; in fact from enhancing trade politics and politicians actually create barriers to trade.” Aren’t we guilty in the UK of a double-think here? We all know that political interference in business is disastrous, hence the need over the last 40 years to de-nationalise so many chronically underperforming industries; knowing that, how then can it be consistent for Britain’s corporate leaders to claim business would be better in the EU, which is precisely not ‘state-run-regulated’ but ‘supra-state run’? When you think of this, it’s absurd: FOOTSIE 100 Chiefs asking the UK Government for less red-tape and regulation and then suggesting the only hope for our business and economy is being in the EU. To put that in perspective, chapter 7, Alternatives to the EU, makes a telling point. Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but still trades with it under two bilateral arrangements. It therefore has to accept – on its terms – some constraints, but as Oulds notes: “Since the start of 1993, when the Single Market came into being, the Swiss have adapted their legal code to bring it into line with just approximately two thousand EU legislative instruments. The U.K., along with other EU members, has however had more than 20,000 imposed from above”. If we then look at the costs of this, as Oulds does in massive detail, the Bilateral agreements enabled them to have access to the market at a cost to them of 550 million Swiss France’s a year; whereas if they were to have full EU membership the cost would increase to 4.9 Billion Swiss Francs – a nine fold increase. And this “excludes the cost of the inevitable increase in EU legislation”! That is, the 18,000 legislative instruments they missed since 1993 – and more since 2013!!! These figures, incidentally, are not made up by Oulds but based on the Swiss Federal Council’s own research incorporated in their Europe Report. It is, then, very telling.
More important than any of the foregoing, however, important as those points are, is the more general evidence that belonging to the EU is a recipe for terminal economic decline. Citing the work of Professor Jean-Jacques Rosa, a French economist, “It [the EU] enforces and enhances the rents of large, older business firms and bureaucracies and freezes the hierarchical structure of both industry and political production at a moment when innovation, new small firms, and lighter government are required. It is a recipe for accelerated decline.” Surely, this must resonate with us? We know that entrepreneurialism depends on flexibility, innovation and vision – the exact opposite of what the EU offers us by being members.
Robert Oulds provides many more examples of where the EU works against our interests as Brits, and I have barely mentioned the important sovereignty and democracy arguments. Space prohibits my outlining his points here, suffice to say, as one major point that Oulds explores: the rise of the political right wing in Europe, which the EU likes to characterise itself as the champion against, is almost certainly (and especially in the 3 years since his book was published) a consequence of the EU: the ‘democratic deficit’ is being felt everywhere across Europe, and rather than creating stability and security the EU is fomenting widespread opposition to its imperialist and non-democrat diktats, leading to extremism.
But to return the economic issue, it would be best to end on a positive note, for if we leave the EU, what options do we have? As Oulds explains: quite a lot! He goes into fine detail the situation appertaining to various international organisations and scenarios, two of these organisations, one obscure to most of us, and one well known, hold out massive hope for our progress and success in the wider world should we opt to leave the EU. These two organisations are EFTA, the less well known, and the Commonwealth of Nations itself. Briefly, on the former, it is noticeable, if somewhat inconvenient for the EU, that the four European countries that are currently members – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein – have some of the highest standards of living for their populations of any countries anywhere in the world. So much for suffering by not actually being in the EU. One significant statistic that Oulds cites is that in 2011 EFTA exported €189.2B worth of good to the EU; the USA itself only managed €90B. This is pretty phenomenal stuff, but if we consider the Commonwealth, and the option of re-activating that option, then what is possible could truly amaze us.
John Cridland, former Director General of the Confederation of British Industries, said in 2001: “We’ve concentrated too much on Europe – we need to get out and build export markets in the rest of the world”. Currently, of course, the “UK is prevented from creating its own specific bilateral investment treaties on its own terms with Commonwealth countries, but also the EU prevents the UK from reaching trade agreements with these tigers [economies within the Commonwealth]”. Lest we forget the Commonwealth comprises “54 countries stretching across every inhabited continent on the planet; even Europe where the UK is not the only member. Both Malta and Cyprus are members of the Commonwealth.” More impressively still: “The population of the Commonwealth is nearly two and a quarter billion people, approaching a third of the world’s population, living on more than eleven and a half million square miles; nearly a quarter of the earth’s land mass. What is more, this territory is rich in natural resources, which not only provide the global economy with the commodities that enable growth but can also give its member states real potential.” As Oulds goes on to observe: “Presently, the Chinese are forging links with these resource rich states; the UK’s Eurocentric orientation is making Britain miss out on the abundant opportunities abroad.” If it goes on like this, it surely will make sorry reading in 20 years from now for the UK.
There is much more to say about this wonderful book, but space prohibits. It is an essential book for those who genuinely wish to reach out to some of the facts underpinning this debate and to move away from fear and slander: the idea that only nutters and Little-Englanders could possibly want to move away from our lovely Big Brother, the EU.
But I have to end on one critical note about this book, good as it is: given the quality of research and the citations used, the lack of an index is a major defect; perhaps a new, updated edition – timely now – will correct this otherwise great read.