A spectacular future

If any backbench MP or minor businessman says that withdrawal from the EU would be a disaster, you can bet your life that their comments will be splashed all over the press the following day. However, a recent gathering of heavyweight academics, politicians and figures from industry sending out a very different message seems to have received precious little coverage in the media.

The Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman was the moving sprit behinds last week’s conference entitled “Alternatives to EU Membership: What are the UK’s options?” Among the speakers was Owen Paterson MP, the former Environment minister. He did not mince his words. “We have to leave”, he said, adding, “I see a huge optimistic vision for this country, a really spectacular future, but to do it and to get there, we have to leave.”

John Mills, a CIB Committee member and Chairman of the Labour Euro Safeguards Committee, delivered a stark warning to his party leader: “If Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister in May and renegotiates without committing to a referendum, he will inevitably weaken the UK’s bargaining position. Minds in Brussels are much more likely to take renegotiation seriously if they know that there is a substantial risk that the UK will leave the EU if there is not a satisfactory deal on the table to persuade the UK to stay in”, he added.

Another Tory MP, Bill Cash, finally answered a question has kept many supporters of withdrawal guessing for years:- does he support withdrawal or not? We finally received the answer. “There is no alternative except moving to exit”, he told the gathering. “There is more nationalism now. There is chaos, less peace, less democracy. There are riots, protests, economic instability. Implosion is imminent, or the alternative is irresponsible coercion of the kind being imposed on the Greeks now.”

Another myth was shattered. Not all senior figures in the American political scene want us to stay in. Dr Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher who is now based at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington DC addressed the conference using a video link. “The biggest threat to the Special Relationship is the European project itself, exemplified by the grandiose dreams of a European super-state”, he said. “Nothing could be worse for America than a Britain that is unable to act independently, straight-jacketed by a forced common foreign and security policy.”

The same day as the conference was staged, a detailed rebuttal of the “three million jobs would be lost if we left” myth was published by Global Britain and the Democracy Movement. Far from worrying about job losses on independence, the report expressed concern about the jobs that would be lost by not leaving. Stuart Coster, the Democracy Movement’s campaign director said: “This report demolishes once and for all the EU lobby’s scaremongering about jobs should Britain choose to leave the EU and reveals reality as the opposite of their claims.” (The full report can be downloaded here)

Such a shame that a day of great hope for our country’s future was largely ignored by most of the daily papers. Apart from the Daily Express, from which some of this information was gleaned, the only other coverage of the Bannerman conference came in the shape of a rather sneering report in The Independent Well, let them sneer. The speakers at the conference were promising, in Mr Bannerman’s words, a “far better, freer and more prosperous future outside the EU”. Anyone who turns their noses up at such an exciting prospect and continues to support our country’s bondage to this club of failures is worthy only of contempt.

Keeping business on side

A battle has erupted between Ed Miliband and a number of business leaders. It began when Stefano Pessina, the Chief executive of Boots, warned that a Labour government would be a “catastrophe” for Britain and said the party’s wider platform was “not helpful for business, not helpful for the country and in the end it probably won’t be helpful for them”.

Labour’s response has been to draw attention to Pessina’s decision to live in Monaco’s low-tax economy rather than the UK, but this is at best an irrelevant sideswipe. Other leading figures from big business have rallied to the support of Boots’ boss, including Sir Stuart Rose, the former Chairman of Marks and Spencer, who accused Miliband of being a “1970s throwback”. He went on to claim that Labour offers a “steady drum-beat of anti-business policies” including tax rises and lacks a “credible plan” to tackle the deficit.

With the confrontation currently in full swing, it is too early to judge whether or not these attacks will dent Labour’s chances, but for Ed Miliband, there is one worrying and very recent precedent: the Scottish independence referendum last year. Business leaders concerned about the economic consequences of independence spoke out. Alex Salmond’s sums were analysed by companies such as Deutsche Bank and were shown not to add up. When it came to the crunch, the famous Bill Clinton adage, “It’s the economy, stupid” proved its potency in persuading a majority of Scots to vote to keep the Union.

The lesson for ourselves and other supporters of EU withdrawal are obvious: we have to prove that EU withdrawal will not be an economic calamity and we have to convince big business of the fact. We may not win all the major companies round, especially those that benefit from EU funding or else have sufficient lobbying power to influence EU legislation in their favour, but we must ensure we have plenty of big-hitters on board.

Many small businesses are on side – indeed, EU legislation and the damage it causes to small businesses is one of the best recruiting sergeants for the withdrawalist cause, but winning round the City and the big multinationals will prove much harder. “Of course the EU will want to trade with us because we run a trade deficit with the other member states” isn’t good enough. In the long term, free from the EU’s onerous legislative burden, we will prosper as a nation, but with no clear road map for negotiating our way through the withdrawal process, business will use all its power to torpedo the case for independence.

Thankfully, Dr Richard North and Robert Oulds, among others are working on exit strategies which will be painless for business. Meanwhile, Ian Milne, who set up Global Britain initially to brief MPs and Lords about EU-related issues, has refocused his organisation’s efforts on winning the business community round. We already have some allies, but there is still a long way to go before withdrawal is viewed by big and small business alike as an opportunity rather than a damaging uncertainty. If Ed Miliband is sunk by these salvos from the business community, it will mean we have only two years at most before that all-important referendum. We must not allow them the opportunity to turn their guns on us.

Syriza wins in Greece. What are the implications for the Eurozone?

As widely expected, the anti-austerity Syriza alliance won the Greek General Election on 25th January. Syriza fell just short of an overall majority, but appears to have secured a deal with the Independent Greeks party to form a new government. This is an unlikely alliance, as this small party is right of centre and agrees with Syriza only on its opposition to the austerity measures imposed on Greece as a condition for a bailout by the so-called “Troika” – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. However, for better or worse, Greece now has a government which has pledged to stand up to its creditors and seek at least a partial forgiveness – or write-off – for the country’s debt, which stands at a staggering 175% of GDP. Given that the Greek people have been through a recession worse than the 1930s and seen GDP shrink by almost 25% in five years, they can hardly be blamed for turning to anyone who promises to offer some hope for the future.

But what are the implications for the country and the eurozone as a whole? The first question is whether the coalition will hold. While Germany is government by a “grand coalition” of left and right, Syriza is not a “mainstream” centre-left social democratic party like Germany’s SPD but an association of Maoists, Trotskyists, Marxists and Greens. It is probably the most left-wing party to have been voted into power in Western Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Independent Greeks, being conservative and nationalistic, are hardly the most obvious or suitable bedfellows for such a party. Any hint that the coalition may collapse before it has even got off the ground will only plunge the country into insecurity and talk of fresh elections. If it does hold, will Alexis Tspiras and his enthusiastic but inexperienced team be able to turn Greece around? Given the amount of ideological far-left baggage the party brings with it into government, this is unlikely. Let’s face it, Marxists, Maoists and Trotskyites don’t have a particularly good record at creating successful, prosperous economies. Venezuela, which boasts one of the world’s most left-wing administrations to have gained power through a (reasonably) democratic process, is currently suffering from an annual inflation rate of over 60% and has had to raise interest rates to over 19% to prevent a currency collapse.

Then comes the tricky question of the relationship with the rest of the EU. Comments on the election results from Northern European Eurozone members have been very stern in tone and quite uncompromising. Angela Merkel has insisted that the new Greek government must stick to the commitments made by its predecessors. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and chairman of the Euro Group was equally forthright. He stated that he would work with the new Greek government but there would be no softening of the line on austerity. “Membership of the eurozone also means you comply with all that we have agreed with each other,” he insisted.

Will there be any give and take on either side? Fudge and compromise are part and parcel of EU horse trading. For established political parties and their leaders, it is grist to the mill, but what of a party that has never been in government before? – especially a party that won a victory pledging NOT to compromise? Tsipras’ rhetoric in his victory speech is not the sort of language Brussels likes to hear:- “Greece is leaving behind the destructive austerity, fear and authoritarianism. It is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain…The verdict of the Greek people, your verdict, annuls today in an indisputable fashion the bailout agreements of austerity and disaster…The verdict of the Greek people renders the troika a thing of the past for our common European framework.” It’s pretty uncompromising stuff, but what if it comes to a standoff? Syriza, like most left-of-centre-parties, claims to be strongly pro-EU, but will Syriza’s more hard-line members and supporters allow Tsipras to be bulldozed buy the EU juggernaut? What if he stands his ground and Greece is expelled from the Eurozone?

While unofficially, some politicians, especially in Germany, state that life would carry on for the other 18 countries without Greece and that a default would not cause the same problems as would have been the case at the height of the Greek debt crisis in 2010-12. But what if Greece then prospers outside the Eurozone? Admittedly, as has been stated, this looks pretty unlikely, but suppose after expulsion Greece, in a subsequent election, voted in a different party that turned the Greek economy around. Would other nations be tempted to leave too?

It is hard to say. Norway and Switzerland have shone for many years as a beacon of light showing how well a nation can do outside the EU completely, but so far, only in the UK are there many people keen to point this out and to suggest that their country ought to follow suit. However, as last May’s European Parliamentary election shows, increasing numbers of people are across the entire continent falling out of love with the EU. Once a nation effects a successful exit from the EU or even the Eurozone, the failure of the whole EU project will become apparent to all and sundry. That is inevitably going to cause a few worries in Brussels, but after years of ignoring referendum results that go the “wrong” way, can the EU élite really be surprised if voters discover other ways of expressing their discontent? General elections are due this year not just on the UK but also in Denmark, Poland, Estonia, Finland Portugal and Spain. In the latter country, a similar hard-left party, Podemos, has been rising in the polls and has also been closely watching Syriza’s progress. “Greeks finally have a government, not a Merkel envoy” was the reaction of one Podemos official to the result. Interesting times ahead, indeed!