Should the UK stay in the European Union?

In the past few years, there have been a noticeable increase in the calls for the UK to consider leaving the European Union. A few years ago, we may have enjoyed complaining about EU directives on the bendy banana (which didn’t really exist) but it was taken as almost sacrosanct that membership of the EU was in the UK’s interest.

What has changed and would we really benefit from leaving – and negotiating a free trade agreement, which enables the benefits of EU membership without the supposed costs?

Should we stay in the EU?

The Ideal of European unity

The relative peace and prosperity in Europe since 1945, is a huge achievement, given the past century of inter-European conflict. Britain is an intrinsic part of Europe, whether it likes it or not. We should take the opportunity to be a member of the European Union and help maintain this European integration and harmony. If the UK left the EU, we would be increasingly politically isolated.

  • However, do we need to be a member of the European Union to achieve this? The UK could still contribute to European ideals without signing up for all the political and economic integration that the EU elite wish to pursue. European countries, who have stayed out of the EU, such as Switzerland and Norway maintain friendly relations with Europe.

Free Trade

One of the strongest benefits of the European Union is the fact that it is our main trading partner, and membership of the EU has helped reduce trade barriers – both tariff and non-tariff barriers. European trade is critical to the UK economy. Leaving the EU could put this important aspect of our economy under threat.

  • The hope of Eurosceptics is that we could leave the political integration of the EU, but maintain all the free trade agreements. Again the model is that Switzerland and Norway have not been disadvantaged by staying out of the European Union. Evidence suggests, the EU would be keen to accommodate the UK as a free trade partner.

“If the British cannot support the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis. I could imagine a free trade agreement.”

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Mistakes of the EU

The EU has many achievements of which it can rightly claim. Long period of peace and prosperity, unrivalled in European history. Secured transition to democracy for countries such as Spain and post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe Free trade and free movement  has helped improve economic growth and living standards. Working on European wide problems, such …

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EU success or crisis?

The German Finance Minister Wolgang Schauble has been a strong advocate of austerity, supply side reforms and ‘sound money’ policies. (i.e. sticking rigidly to inflation targets). Generally, this has been the preferred approach of Europe to the ongoing debt crisis and recession of the past few years. Recently, he has claimed that the European economy is recovering well and this is vindication that the broad approach of fiscal discipline and structural reforms are laying a foundation for strong economic growth in the future.

Writing in the Financial Times, Schauble states:

While the crisis continues to reverberate, the eurozone is clearly on the mend both structurally and cyclically.

What is happening turns out to be pretty much what the proponents of Europe’s cool-headed crisis management predicted. The fiscal and structural repair work is paying off, laying the foundations for sustainable growth. This has taken critical observers aback. It should not have, because, in truth, we have seen it all before, many times and in many places. Despite what the critics of the European crisis management would have us believe, we live in the real world, not in a parallel universe where well-established economic principles no longer apply. (FT – Ignore the doomsayers)

Others are much more critical arguing that this view ignores the long-term damage being done to the EU economy by years of deflationary policies. Also, his view ignores the damage of self-defeating austerity which has caused mass unemployment across Europe and rising debt to GDP ratios.

Economic recovery in Europe

EU growth

source: Eurostat

Firstly, the recovery is very timid. The Euro area did grow by 0.3% in the Q2 of 2013, but Eurozone real GDP is still -0.5% lower than 12 months ago. The important point is that since 2008, Europe has failed to reach a normal rate of economic growth – there has been no escape velocity. The recovery of 2010 petered out.

Reasons to hold back on the champagne and not celebrate the EU economy.

1. Quarterly growth figures are very limited in determining the success or otherwise of the economy. The European recession began in 2008. The fact you have one quarter of positive growth in 2013 Q2 doesn’t overcome the five years of recession. Real GDP growth has fallen drastically behind the trend rate of growth necessary to get anywhere close to full capacity.

2. Unemployment. Unemployment is arguably the most useful statistic for understanding the degree of spare capacity and wasted resources in an economy. High unemployment has very high social costs in terms of lower incomes, declining morale, and wider social problems. On this metric, the Eurozone faces an unprecedented crisis. Yet, it tends to be brushed aside by European policy makers.


Could US Make Same Mistakes as Europe?

In 2009, US and EU unemployment rates both stood at 10% – but since then EU unemployment has increased to 12% and US unemployment fallen to 7.9%. (see: US v EU unemployment)

These contrasting fortunes in unemployment are a reflection of diverging rates of economic growth. Whilst, Europe has entered a double dip recession, the US has experienced a sustained economic recovery. It is also a reflection of different economic policy – the EU has become obsessed with reducing budget deficits, the US has given more focus to promoting economic recovery.


However, in the face of concerns over levels of US government borrowing and impending debt ceilings, many in the US are pushing for a rapid fiscal consolidation.

But is US austerity necessary? and what will be the impact of austerity on a) the budget deficit and b) economic growth c) long-term structural spending and debt commitments?

Is Austerity Necessary in US?

total us debt

Total Federal Debt increased to 101% of GDP in Q2 2012. It is a sharp increase since 2008, when debt was just over 60% of GDP. But, this is to be expected in a recession as deep as past recession.

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Why Did Europe Expect Fiscal Consolidation to Work?

Readers Question. Can you explain why the Government and Economic Commentators  are talking about a multiplier (in relation to budget cuts) of between 0.5 and 1, whereas I always thought that the GDP multiplier was bigger than this.

Just to summarise a multiplier of 0.5 would mean fiscal consolidation (spending cuts) of £1bn, would lead to a drop in GDP of only £0.5bn. In other words, they hoped fiscal consolidation would be successful and only have a limited impact on reducing economic growth rates.

However, evidence from the IMF and other studies have shown the fiscal multiplier has proved much higher. In fact a multiplier of up to 2. (for every spending cut of £1bn, we have seen GDP fall £2bn. See: Fiscal multiplier and European austerity).

Essentially, this shows the limitations of using economic models which are applied during very different economic circumstances. If you look at previous attempts at fiscal consolidation undertaken during strong economic growth (e.g. Canada in 1990s), a multiplier of 0.5 would be quite reasonable.

However, there was an unwillingness to admit that the economic situation in the aftermath of a financial crisis and liquidity trap was very different.


Why might the Government and European Commentators expect  a multiplier of 0.5?

To some extent, I answered this yesterday on the post – why austerity will increase the budget deficit. But, just to recap, the may have hoped for a multiplier of 0.5 because:

1. Expansionary monetary policy. With spending cuts, usually a Central Bank can cut interest rates and loosen monetary policy so that there is a boost to demand to offset the impact of tax increases and spending cuts.

  • But, the EU and UK government should have realised that interest rates were already at record lows in 2010. Quantitative easing has done little to boost spending in the UK. In Europe, the ECB has never showed any real sign of loosening monetary policy in response to fiscal consolidation. In fact in 2011, the ECB increased interest rates over misplaced fears on inflation.

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