Indeed, the prime motivating force behind the case for British membership was the realisation that our economic growth rate was lower than theirs. The combination of the size of the European market and what appeared to be their greater economic competence suggested that we would be more prosperous if we joined.
The negative side to this argument was a suspicion that we British couldn’t run our economy properly, as evidenced by the record of relative decline, high inflation and appalling levels of industrial unrest. But over the next quarter century this pattern was reversed.
During the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, I was frequently asked how the economic costs and benefits would stack up if we left the Union. I started by doing the usual totting up of gains and losses from such things as leaving the Single Market and signing Free Trade Agreements with other countries.
But I argued that the net benefit from these factors was not the most important issue at stake. The most important issue concerned governance – that is to say, how well our governing institutions made decisions and enacted policies.
It was impossible to tell – then as now – what the next big challenge would turn out to be but I argued that, whatever it was, on all past form the EU would handle it badly. Then, out of the blue, came Covid.
There’s an amusing parlour game that you can play with your friends and family: name a single area where the EU’s policy has been crowned with success. What about the Single Market? Yes, that’s probably the best answer. It has been a success, although much less so than EU propaganda would have you believe, as evidenced by the fact that the economies of the EU have performed relatively poorly against international competitors. So the Single Market cannot be that great (and, by the way, it was a British idea).
To set against this there is a litany of failures, from the CAP and Common Fisheries Policy, through to the bungled formation of the euro without simultaneously establishing fiscal union, to the migration crisis of 2015. Common European defence policy? Don’t make me laugh. There isn’t one. The EU relies on the Americans. And now, Vaccinegate.
What has been at the root of the EU’s tendency to make bad decisions and to embrace bad policies? We have to look to the way the EU’s institutions work and how the drive to weld the member countries together affects policy and practice.
Perhaps the greatest source of weakness is the abiding presumption that the route to success lies with uniformity and harmonisation. There is so much evidence that success derives from competition and diversity – and that even includes competition between countries.
Linked to this is an inherent exaggeration of the benefits of size. This was seen last year as the EU chose to take a common approach to securing vaccines, believing that they could benefit from the combined purchasing power of the bloc.