Brexit may do Europe as well as Britain a favour

John Kane-Berman says the EU is less a paragon of globalisation than a protectionist laager against the rest of the world

Brexit may do Europe as well as Britain a favour

by John Kane-Berman

As chancellor of Oxford, ex-chairman of the BBC Trust, one-time governor of Hong Kong, former member of the European Commission, and erstwhile "wet" in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, Chris Patten is a certified member of the Great and the Good. He has pronounced that the British vote to quit the European Union (EU) means that "Donald Trump-style populism has come to Britain".

Anger at loss of control over immigration helped to swing the British vote in the referendum last month. But 17 million people do not all vote the same way for the same reason, and Lord Patten's sneer helps to explain why the Great and the Good got it wrong. They were so busy  whipping up alarm that they failed to address the objections from all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons to all the grandiosity and interference from Brussels.     

Among the supporters of Brexit was a former chief of the British defence staff, Charles Guthrie, who voiced concern at the EU's ambitions to start a European army. Operational planning, in which 28 countries would all want a say, would be a "nightmare", said Field Marshal Guthrie. This was not the case with NATO.   

Another concern was that of small business. Daniel Hannan wrote that the biggest surprise to him as a new member of the European parliament was how hungry big companies were for more regulation and how they captured the Brussels machine to raise barriers to market entry. Smaller companies could not afford lobbyists in Brussels, so 70% of them wanted the United Kingdom (UK) to take back control of employment, health, safety, and trade policy.

Anyone familiar with how big business in South Africa has teamed up with the government and organised labour to rig the labour market against small business will be sympathetic to the problems of small British business struggling with compliance costs.      

Brexit has been stigmatised as anti-globalisation. But the EU is less a paragon of globalisation than a protectionist laager against the rest of the world. A key argument for Brexit is that the UK will be free to negotiate its own bilateral trade agreements with other countries, including China and India, instead of having to wait for the Brussels bureaucracy to do so on behalf of 28 countries. Despite Barrack Obama's threat - since diluted  - to relegate the UK to the back of the queue, it will be easier for Washington to negotiate a trade deal with the UK than with Europe.

Better still, the UK, free of the EU, could unilaterally dismantle all its own trade barriers and so strike a blow for the great liberal cause of global free trade.

While the EU wishes to move towards uniform tax policy, the UK has already announced plans to cut corporation tax to less than 15%. Brussels will no doubt try to block this, but in due course other European countries might have to follow the UK's lead or risk losing corporate headquarters to London.   

Which brings us to the first great irony. If you want to reform the EU, according to The Economist and other members of the Great and Good, you can do so only from within, not by "storming out". But the UK's chances of persuading the EU to reform in any fundamental way by staying in were close to zero. However, by getting out, the UK may just compel the EU to do some introspection - not to appease the British, but for fear that other member states agitate to follow their lead.  

The second great irony, identified by The Economist itself, is this: "To see off the next crisis, the train of [European] integration will have to keep moving. But ever more voters are standing athwart the locomotive, yelling 'stop!'" Quite why The Economist thinks anyone jumping off a runaway train is demented, the paper does not explain.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.