Brexit: This is not about detail, it is about principle

This article borrows from a reasonably good blog post created by Dr Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute in June 2015 and makes a number of improvements. Original article here: http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/international/something-important-that-mr-cameron-should-understand/.

As David Cameron is supposedly renegotiating a new European Union arrangement better suited to the UK’s needs and preferences, it is essential that he should understand something very important: It is that this is not about detail; it is about principle.

From the leaks and speculation surrounding Mr Cameron’s diplomacy and statements to date, the observer might think that they hinge on such questions as to whether immigrants should receive benefits, or whether the UK will be able to exercise some control over their numbers, or even, as some in the press would have it, details over bent banana regulations or the costs/benefits of membership.

These are details, details on which I differ with some in his party and UKIP. In particular, I take the view that immigrants, especially but not exclusively skilled ones, should play an important part in the country’s future prosperity.

They are still details, however, and if all David Cameron returns with is a ragbag of assorted concessions here and there, he will have passed up an historic opportunity for Britain. The principle at stake is democratic self-government. It is whether the British people through their elected representatives can make the laws that prevail in this country.

Yes, of course the UK should remain part of the single market, and yes of course the goods and services we export to fellow members of the EU must meet EU regulations and conform to EU standards. But what we do not want are activist European institutions handing down laws to us.

Britain needs to cut off from “ever closer union” if it is to protect the liberties that are part of its inheritance from Magna Carta onwards. In most of the EU, the laws tell people what they may do; in the UK the laws only tell us what they may not do — a fundamental difference. Britons do not derive their freedoms from Parliament. On the contrary, Parliament itself is a product of those freedoms.

Mr Cameron should remember that every concession on detail can be subsequently reversed. John Major’s opt-out on the working hours directive was subsequently re-imposed upon us through EU health and safety provisions. What he must seek instead is a deal that recognises the principle that the British people are sovereign in this country.

My hope is that we eventually reach a deal — probably after a referendum favouring exit — that puts Britain outside the EU while retaining a single market relationship with it; willingly going along with the economic aspects of union, but with the UK protected from those who seek a Europe governed in detail by Europe-wide institutions.

The latest mood music from the “renegotiation” (such that a renegotiation process exists at all) is that a potential “middle way” may be sold to us by Cameron: of placing us in an outer tier of EU— a kind of semi-detached “associate membership” status. If true, this may be superficially attractive but will not meet the requirement of self-government and therefore must be rejected should it be offered. Only a relationship based on inter-governmentalism can have any chance of supporting the requirements of democratic self-government. Associate membership can never deliver that — it can only ever provide a second-class status in a supranational union whose historic mission is to integrate. In other words, such status will be a slower lane to the same destination regardless of whether future treaty texts excuse us from “ever closer union”.

So with the status quo unlikely to be on offer at the referendum, the choice may come down to: accept second class status or join the euro.

As neither are palatable, only exit will suffice.