It is fairly clear, even among Europhiles who want to stay in, what most people object to about the current state of the EU and what they would like to see changed. The membership fee is uncomfortably large, some £11bn every year. Free movement of labour works well between countries of similar living standards, but not between countries at very different levels of economic development. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy still take 40% of the entire EU budget, and cause considerable resentment in many countries, including the UK. Most people, including most businesses, support free trade, but doubt whether the Single Market is worth the bureaucracy it generates. It is widely felt that the EU is too regulatory and too protectionist. Not many people in the UK want to see Britain becoming part of a federal United States of Europe, but that’s the direction favoured by many of Europe’s leaders.
Are these aspirations likely to be achieved in the current negotiations? It seems very unlikely. There may be a declaration that the UK is not fully tied into the EU goal of ‘ever closer union’. The benefit entitlements of migrants from the EU to the UK will be restricted further. There are proposals to strengthen the sovereignty of national parliaments and for the role of the City to be safeguarded against discriminatory EU financial regulation. But none of this is likely to impact significantly on the concerns that most people have about EU membership, and particularly at a time when the EU is running into deeper difficulties. The austerity policies to maintain the single currency leave EU living standards, as in the UK, still well below 2007 levels. The way the Germans treated Greece has heavily undermined the perception of the EU as a force for tolerance and fairness. Far right parties are on the march across much of the EU and will increasingly put at risk unpopular policies needed to keep the single currency from collapse.
This may explain why the latest polls suggest that 43% of people in the UK wish to leave and only 40% to stay in. So how is a policy to remain within the EU, which most Labour Party members want, to be combined with renegotiation aims that meet the objections of the majority of British people? Cameron and Osborne seem only interested in achieving the minimum changes that will persuade a majority of the electorate to vote to stay in. Nor has the Labour party so far offered a vision much beyond this minimalist goal. Once a new leader is elected, this must become a top priority.