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Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh
16th May 2013 - Britain in Europe - the US factor

All of a sudden, the UK national news is full of Europe. Short of when we joined in 1973, I doubt if the whole concept of Europe has ever had this much attention from the media here.

In fact, getting anything to do with the EU into the news here is usually quite a challenge.

So why has it been so different this week? Well, it’s all down to the US and President Barack Obama against the background of the success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – not to be confused with independence in the sense that we mean it in Scotland.

UKIP’s main drivers are to get the UK out of the EU and to stop what they would no doubt describe as rampant immigration. The Conservatives, thoroughly alarmed by the scale of UKIP’s vote in the recent local elections, responded by publishing a draft parliamentary Bill to legislate for an in-out referendum.

But on the day before that announcement, Prime Minister David Cameron was in the US working on EU negotiations with President Barack Obama for a free trade deal between the EU and the US.

This is an interesting contradiction and one that epitomises the dilemma the UK Government finds itself in. David Cameron knows perfectly well that leaving the EU would bring unprecedented disaster but at the same time he is pandering to UKIP and some 114 MPs to run the referendum on membership.

President Obama was measured in his comments. He told reporters that Mr Cameron’s “basic point that you probably want to see if you can fix what is broken in a very important relationship before you break it off” made “some sense” to him.

Mr Cameron insists that he is in a strong enough position in Europe to be able to re-write how it operates. He says he finds it “very, very strange” that former cabinet ministers Lord Lawson and Michael Portillo want to leave the Union and has accused them of “throwing in the towel” before negotiations have even started.

Even current Cabinet Secretaries like Michael Gove (Education) and Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond have said they would vote to leave the EU if there was a referendum now.

President Obama, though circumspect in his public comments, is clear that the “special relationship” with the UK is one that depends upon Britain being “engaged with the world.” And he added: “The UK’s participation in the EU is an expression of its influence and its role in the world as well as obviously a very important economic partnership.”

There can be little doubt that stripped of influence in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, Britain would find itself increasingly ignored by Washington and sidelined on big transnational issues such as the environment, security and trade. America and other allies want Britain to remain in the EU. Without that connection to the powerhouse of 504 million people, Britain risks becoming a maverick, isolated state.

The UK is no longer the imperial power it once was, though sometimes this Government’s behaviour might make you think it still sees itself in that kind of light. Its influence in Europe is much less than it seems to think and the chances of 26 other countries agreeing to David Cameron’s “negotiations” are minimal at best. Why would Germany, France, Spain, Italy and all of the smaller countries agree to give away a host of dispensations to the UK?

You can’t have it both ways Mr. Cameron. You join the club, you abide by the rules and you pay your dues or you leave the club. You can’t decide to pick and mix from the rules and still retain membership.

If Britain went for a clean break from the EU, its exports – including Scotland’s if we don’t secure independence – would be subject to EU export tariffs and would still have to meet EU production and quality standards.

We would lose our EU citizenship and along with it the right to live and work in any EU country. Millions of jobs could be lost as global manufacturers move out to avoid export tariffs. The notion that the UK would somehow save money is nonsense. Its contribution to the EU budget is a drop in the ocean compared with the benefits to business of being in a single market. The UK pays £5.85 billion into the EU out of £706 billion in public spending, less than one per cent. Withdrawal would be costly for exporters and tax revenues would be lost if companies dealing with the Eurozone, especially banks, move from the City to the EU.

There is a recognition among many of the member nations that there does need to be reform in the EU; that there is wastage and duplication that really can’t be justified and it needs to be sorted out. But the EU was founded on the fundamental concepts of fairness and equal representation, so those changes have to be worked out on a partnership basis.

For Scotland, the debate is an important reminder of how crucial it is that we have our independence so that we come to the EU table as a member state in our own right. There is no appetite here for an in-out referendum on EU membership but if the electorate says No to independence, then we will be swept out along with the rest of the UK.

Being there, being part of the discussions, is vital to Scotland’s economy and its future prosperity.

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