I spoke this week at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. It was a debate, organised by the Centre for European Reform and Open Europe, on the relationship between Europe and America, but much of the time was spent debating Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
There was a standing room only attendance, and a predominance of euro sceptical views.
I shared the platform with UK the Foreign Secretary, William Hague and the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, and Daniel Hannan MEP.
Daniel Hannan unfavourably contrasted the long EU Treaty of Lisbon with the very short US constitution, and that countries that stayed out of the EU ,like Switzerland and Norway, were better off.
I replied that the big difference between the EU and the US was that states could leave the EU, but states could not leave the US, once they joined, as South Carolina discovered to its cost in 1861. A Union, where states could leave like the EU, required much more detailed compromises that did one they could not, like the US. That accounted for the greater length of EU Treaties, which were in effect the price one paid for the fact that individual states in the EU remain sovereign, whereas it is the Federal Government that is sovereign in the US.
As far as Switzerland and Norway were concerned, I said that they still chose to apply the EU rules on all issues that affected freedom of movement of goods, people and services, because they wanted to have access to the EU market. The price they paid for staying out of the EU was that they had no democratic say in making these rules, whereas , as an EU member, Britain had a say in making these EU rules through its Ministers in the Council and its MEPS in the European Parliament. Quite a list of countries are applying to join the EU, but no states, not even Puerto Rico, were applying to join the US.
I added that, even though it was not in it, Britain gained from the existence of the euro. British travellers did not have to pay foreign exchange fees to banks every time they crossed a border on the continent, and London gained from the euro as a financial centre.
I also attended some of the sessions of the Conference.
Boris Johnson made a good case for his leadership of London as its Mayor, highlighting the reduction in night crime, his removal of road bumps, and his bicycle scheme.
David Willets spoke of the creation of extra places for apprentices, and of the need for universities to arrange to commercialise their research, a lesson that universities in other countries need to learn. He added that promotion of academics to higher posts should reward their skill and success as teachers, something often ignored at the moment. Again I think other countries could consider the same point.