Between the lines: Where is the vision for an EU alternative?

THE decision we take in June is a momentous one and yet it remains entirely unclear what facts we will have on which to base our choice, writes Michael Dean

The EU has affected all our lives and businesses, but few really understand how it operates, what it has achieved and what they have to thank it for. It is a hugely complex entity whose origins lie in the aftermath of the devastation of several wars, in a period when co-operation, security and economics went hand in hand together with recognition that the nation state in itself was inadequate. Europe is very different now and much of our debate is about the more mundane issues of day-to-day business.

We need to assess the opportunities of one route rather than another, the benefits or detriments of being in, balanced with the consequences of being out. That is where the debate breaks down: we have no idea what the vision is for life outside the EU. Much needs to be done by the UK government to let us know what “elsewhere” looks like.

The alternatives are unclear. What the EU regulates in the UK would mostly have to be regulated by equivalent UK rules. Before we joined the EU, and for a long time after, competition law was a joke, and subject to political interference. There was no real control over the fixing by local and central governments of awards of public contracts. In the area of state aid at the UK level, even now we have few remedies and little interest in dealing with unfair competition from the public sector, where EU law does not apply.

The fact remains that for serious enforcement and compliance with economic and business law, we often depend on the EU to provide a robust framework of rules to embolden the courts to keep government acting within a sensible legal framework. The same goes for social, environmental and employment law. Regarding these issues, the options in the event of a vote to leave the EU are totally unclear. And what happens to the rights of EU workers here, on whom our businesses so often depend?

Then there is the issue of membership of the European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area (EEA), touted by some as alternatives. EEA members, such as Norway, have to adopt EU legislation over which they have no veto, so even that brings compromises over ­sovereignty.

On sovereignty, Mr Cameron’s package makes it clear that the UK is not committed to the objective – unfairly hidden away in the first line of the Treaty of Rome – of ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. Never mind the detail, what is perhaps most disappointing is the failure of the UK to engage and consistently provide leadership in Europe and to formulate a longer term vision. What is the UK vision?

The uncertainties seem endless; the complexity of what could lie ahead is unprecedented. Whether the future for Europe’s citizens living in the UK and beyond will be better over the next 100 years is the important question.

• Michael Dean is a partner and head of the EU competition and regulatory team at Maclay Murray & Spens LLP, a full service UK commercial law firm

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