For as long as I have been in work I’ve been writing about Europe’s single currency in one way or another, from the Exchange Rate Mechanism to a eurozone break-up.
All that time I’ve maintained a stubborn opposition to Britain’s membership. But now an equally difficult choice is looming, which centres on what sort of Europeans do we want to be or, perhaps more realistically, what sort of Europeans can we be?
Maintaining the status quo between the UK and Europe is the most unrealistic option. We might not be changing but Europe certainly is, driven by the 17 members of the single currency which are forging closer political, economic and financial union — a process that now lies at the heart of modern Europe.
David Cameron is due to speak on our relationship with the European Union soon and there is talk of a referendum to decide our future relationship with an entity which represents the world’s biggest exporter of goods and services, accounting for more than 16pc of global exports.
Some want us to leave the EU altogether, others want us to somehow renegotiate our position to our advantage. It’s going to be hard to get it right and very easy to get it wrong, especially if the debate remains focused purely on EU regulations, human rights law and the strange obsessions of pettifogging Eurocrats.
What matters most, surely, to the UK is growth, living standards and jobs. These ought to be the main concerns of our politicians, too. Considered through the lens of our economic well-being, Europe appears a more essential part of our lives than it might have appeared in these recent crisis-hit years.
There is a consensus here that the UK must retain its membership of the single market but that we should remain outside the single currency. To do that we must put forward a positive case for our continued membership of the single market — which isn’t too hard when you consider that we import far more from Europe than we export over there, allowing our continental cousins to enjoy a significant surplus. In other words, they seem to need us more than we need them.
But we may well need Europe more than Europe needs us in a rather bigger way in coming years when it comes to making the most of what’s happening in global trade, where we’re hoping to make significant progress. The World Trade Organisation, and its interminable round of talks, has generated nothing but yawns for years. But things are changing and improvements in global trade could well be one of the most significant economic developments of the next 18-24 months. There is a pragmatic move being led by the International Chambers of Commerce, in partnership with the WTO, to implement the elements of the now stalled Doha round of trade talks which were agreed over the past decade but never implemented. This bottleneck is down to the WTO’s archaic “single undertaking” negotiating rules whereby everything on the negotiating table has to be agreed by everyone or nothing is agreed. That looks like being overcome by the end of 2013, clearing a log jam so that several “Doha deliverables” will take effect — including the liberalisation of trade in services which is the UK’s biggest overseas earner.
But as the brakes come off world trade, the biggest beneficiaries will be members of the biggest trading blocs. Those outside these groups risk missing out on the biggest benefits of multilateralism and trying to join after the event risks less favourable terms. We could try to negotiate our own bilateral agreements but given our market of 60m people we’re unlikely to win such attractive terms as a market such as the EU’s 500m. It’s true the likes of Switzerland do it but I don’t believe we should be aspiring to be Switzerland — no offence to the Swiss.
All of this is not way off in the distant future either, but just around the corner. The US and the EU are moving towards a historic free trade deal. The world would feel a very lonely place if we weren’t part of that or able to leverage a position in Europe to take proper advantage of a single market in services. The massive Trans-Pacific Partnership will be another huge bloc the EU will deal with at an advantage to an isolated UK. We need membership of the EU and its single market and there is a political price to pay for that. We’re in a strong position to negotiate that price, but negotiate we must.