Out-ers – let’s call those who want Britain to leave the EU that (as opposed to in-ers arguing for Britain to stay in the EU) – generally say that the EU would have been fine if it had stuck to its free trade roots.
But because it morphed into a political union, allegedly dictating the laws of apparently subject countries, it has become unacceptable.
But fear not, if Britain does vote Out, the EU will happily continue trading with us on all the existing free trade terms.
We will simply rid ourselves of all that tiresome EU regulation nobody has voted for, all those interfering Eurocrats and commissioners that nobody knows, and won’t have to pay those billions in EU fees which can instead be spent on the health service or on cutting taxes.
This, frankly, is complete fantasy. Leaving regulations fees for later articles, let’s concentrate on the trade argument using figures for goods or visible trade as it used to be called.
Out-ers rest their trade-business-as-usual case on the undeniable fact that Britain has a trade deficit with the other 27 EU countries. For the three months to January 2016, National Statistics reported last week, this deficit had swelled to a record £23.6 billion.
So, Out-ers say, because the EU sells more to us than we buy from them, they have more to lose by not allowing an independent Britain free trade access to the EU. Any barriers to British exports would also inhibit EU sales to Britain.
This argument uncannily echoes the SNP’s indyref claim that the rest of the UK would be happy to let Scotland share the pound sterling as otherwise the rest of UK firms selling into Scotland would be penalised.
And it is just as spurious. The true EU-UK trade picture needs to see the figures as a proportion of total trade. There are two ways of doing this.
One treats the other 27 countries in the EU as though they were a single country and ignores intra-EU trade between them. This reduces total exports of the 27 countries, so enlarging the value of their sales to the UK to 16 per cent of all their exports outwith the EU.
The other includes all intra-EU trade and so, on IMF figures cited by The Economist, reduces the value of the 27 states’ exports to Britain to 6.5 per cent of their total exports.
I think, if I was sitting on the other side of the North Sea and wondering what to do about trade deals in the event of Brexit, that the second figure is rather more relevant in terms of the economic impact of any post-Brexit trade barriers.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that such barriers reduce trade flows in both directions by 10 per cent. On the IMF numbers, this would cut EU exports by about $36 billion and UK exports by about $21 billion.
But the EU’s loss amounts to only 1.5 per cent of EU exports and, moreover, would be shared amongst 27 countries, reducing each state’s loss to negligible levels. On the other hand, as currently 47 per cent of British exports go to other EU members, our loss would be a more substantial 4.8 per cent of exports.
Sure, the EU’s economy is parlous and any impact on trade would be unwanted. But politically, why would EU leaders, some of whom face anti-EU parties in their own country, want to encourage them by rewarding a departing UK with a generous deal?
The plain fact is that our exporters need the EU a lot more than the EU needs us.
Peter Jones is an Edinburgh-based business journalist, former political editor of The Scotsman and Scottish editor The Economist. He continues to write for The Times and The Economist.