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EU is far from being a superstate

by David Hannay | 17.05.2016

The Leave campaign’s standard operating procedure is to exaggerate the EU’s actual powers, to allege creep in their exercise and to cast doubt on the British government’s ability to block any extension of those powers. Hence, frequent references to the “Brussels octopus”. Hence, too, the reiterated citing of non-legislative documents (their current favourite being the Five Presidents’ report ) whose recommendations have not been accepted by the member states and are unlikely ever to be so.

Let us look first at those policy areas where decisions can only be taken if the British government agrees to them. These are all highly significant matters – treaty change, enlargement negotiations (which would give Britain a veto on Turkey joining the EU), common foreign and security policy, European defence policy, and any lifting of the EU’s revenue ceiling or changes in the UK’s budget rebate.

Moreover any proposal to shift the boundaries between provisions requiring unanimity and those that can be decided by Qualified Majority voting would need treaty change and would, in all likelihood, trigger the requirement for a new referendum in the UK, as provided for in the 2011 European Referendum Act – the “double lock” to which the government often refers. How likely is it that any British government in the years ahead would set out down that course; or that any group of EU member states would try to persuade them to do so?

This argument over how much of our legislation is actually based on EU decisions is muddied by a dispute over figures – the House of Commons Library says 13%, the Leave campaign somewhere north of 60%. Quite a big gap. How can that be explained? Well the Leavers throw in a large number of EU decisions which have no practical application in this country at all, such as provisions relating to the production of olive oil, or tobacco, or cotton or competition policy decisions relating to state aid in another member state.

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But in any case what matters is not just quantity but quality. And so, when you look at policy areas that British people really mind about a lot – the NHS, our military deployments, our social security system, the education system, the future of the BBC, our use of intelligence material, our controls over immigration from third countries outside the EU, the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – you find that the key decisions remain in our own hands and under the control of parliament.

Our role as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council is explicitly protected in the treaty and we are only constrained by EU policy there when we ourselves have given our prior agreement to that policy. On the exchange of intelligence, we often cooperate with other member states because it is in our national interest to do so; but we cannot be compelled to do so against our will.

We also have opted out of the EU’s two problem areas – the single currency and the border-free Schengen Area. The only policy area which voters really care about that parliament doesn’t control is free movement of people from the rest of the EU. Not only is this the quid pro quo for access to the single market, which is responsible for half our trade; it is also economically beneficial.

The failure to say any of this constitutes part of the Leave campaign’s own Project Fear.

Edited by Hugo Dixon