by Reihan Salam

Matthias Matthijs objects to David Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, warning that “abandoning Europe” would be folly. But Matthijs arguments are unconvincing.

For example, he suggests that “Cameron’s stance on Europe constitutes a break with Conservative tradition,” correctly observing that the center-right had championed European integration as a liberalizing force from the 1970s to the 1990s while the Labour left saw it as a threat to socialism at home. What Matthijs doesn’t appreciate is that there is not a single “Conservative tradition” — one of the most vigorous opponents of British membership in the European Economic Community was Enoch Powell, who is mostly remembered for his strident anti-immigration rhetoric, yet who was also an early champion of market-oriented economic reform. And Matthijs acknowledges Thatcher’s turn against the vision of “ever closer union” in the 1980s, which in the decades since has embraced by virtually all Conservatives. 

Matthijs argues that resistance to new financial sector regulations designed to strengthen monetary union is foolish, as the financial crisis demonstrated the need for stringent financial regulation. This is a non sequitur. It may well be true that Britain needs more stringent financial regulation, e.g., imposing higher equity requirements on financial institutions. It is not at all clear, however, that the British economy would benefit from “common banking supervision, joint deposit insurance, and closer fiscal cooperation” designed to shore up the eurozone. Not all regulation is created equal. 

The strongest argument Matthijs makes is also the most familiar among critics of a “Brexit,” i.e., that to access the European common market, Britain would have to play by Europe’s rules without playing a role in setting Europe’s rules. But this has not proven an insurmountable obstacle to other countries that trade with the European Union as non-members, including Switzerland and Norway, or for that matter the United States and Canada. And Matthijs’ next point would strike many British voters as bizarre:

By leaving, the United Kingdom would also miss out on the free movement of labor, forfeiting the ability to attract many of Europe’s best brains and the ability to take advantage of an influx of low-wage workers from central Europe.

Britain would be free to set its own migration policies on leaving the European Union. “Europe’s best brains” would presumably still be welcome. Limiting the influx of low-wage workers from central and eastern Europe, meanwhile, would create breathing room for Britain to instead welcome Africa’s best brains and Asia’s best brains. Britain was only one of three countries (Sweden and Ireland were the others) to not impose temporary migration controls on workers from new EU member states, and this decision has proven extremely unpopular. What Matthijs characterizes as a feature is seen by most of the British public as a bug. 

And finally, Matthijs concludes that a Brexit would greatly undermine Britain’s international status. He doesn’t bother to argue why a Britain that models itself on Switzerland or Singapore would be such a disaster. I can see why the U.S. might benefit from British membership in the European Union — having a British voice at the table tends to mitigate Europe’s dirigisme – but British voters are rightly concerned with their interests rather than ours. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.