Poll after poll shows a consistent pattern. Support in Britain for our membership of the EU, at 34% according to Eurobarometer, an EU publication is lower than in any other Member State and well below the 53% average for all EU countries. This is not because of British isolationism. There is strong support across all age groups and almost all of the political spectrum in favour of close relations with other European nations. Almost everyone is in favour of unrestricted travel, the chance to live and work in another country, free trade and co-operation on a wide range of issues where it makes sense for this to happen. Enthusiasm is - understandably - rather more muted for freedom of capital movements and unrestricted migration within the EU, but there is wide appreciation of our common European culture, history and civilised values. It is not co-operation and close ties with our European neighbours which is the problem. It is the specific form that these have taken which a majority of the British people do not like.
Some of the problems with the EU are ones which are shared by most if not all other EU Member States or at least by their electorates. There is a very widespread view that the EU institutions are remote and elitist. Almost everyone agrees that, even if the countries which make up the EU are fully functioning democracies, the EU itself falls a very long way short itself of being a properly democratic organisation. Far too much power lies with unelected and immovable Commission officials, central bankers and judges. The European Parliament is not a parliament at all in any normal sense. Crucially, it cannot choose a government. It is really no more than a consultative assembly. Nobody in control is elected, partly because the European Union lacks any of the political cohesion which the nation state engenders, so there are no genuine trans-national political parties. Too many languages and historical pressures make it impossible to achieve an EU wide public opinion that occurs naturally in the Nation State. Without democratic control, however, the inevitable outcome is that those who have power advance their own interests, untrammelled by what the electorate wants, concentrating control at the centre at best and feathering their own nests at worst. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that, right across the EU, there is a feeling of disengagement and alienation from what the EU does and stands for. There are, however, particular reasons why the British electorate should feel disenchanted with the EU and this no doubt explains the exceptionally poor support ratings shown in British polls on our EU membership.
The first major cause for complaint is that being in the EU is extremely expensive for the UK. We are major net paymasters to the EU and all the available projections show the position worsening substantially over the next few years. This has been the position every year since we joined the EU, with the sole exception of 1975, so that the cumulative net cost to Britain of our EU membership now totals some £125bn in 2008 money - not far off a tenth of our entire annual national income. Because of the way in which the EU budget is structured, it is extremely difficult to see this ever changing. Worse, however, is to come. Currently, we pay in to the EU budget each year about £10bn and we receive back about £6bn. We thus have a net cost of about £4bn although the situation is really worse than this because much of the £6bn is spent on projects which would not be our top priority. As a result of the agreement reached in Brussels in December 2005, however, our net contribution is set to rise sharply, mainly as a result of the rebate agreed in 1984 being phased down. By 2013, therefore, our net contribution each year to the EU budget is likely to be between £6bn and £7bn. In addition, there are substantial net payments which we make each year to the EU which have recently been running at close to £2bn per annum. All these net costs are paid abroad thus significantly worsening our already serious balance of payments problem.
Undoubtedly, another major source of discontent over our EU membership stems from the fact that this obliges us to be part of both the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Both have been a disaster for the UK. The way the CAP funding operates, aggravated by the fines regularly imposed on the UK by the Commission which have crippled DEFRA's budget, is a major reason why our net financial contributions to the EU are so high. In addition, the CAP has forced up food prices to way above the world level, costing the average family around £20 a week extra. The total cost of the CAP to the UK as a whole has been estimated by the OECD to be about £15bn a year in current money. We have been told time after time that it is British policy to see the CAP radically reformed but there is no sign of this being likely to happen - certainly not before 2013, when the current arrangements are first up for review, but probably not even then. In the meantime, far from the total costs of the CAP to the EU budget falling, they are on an upward trend. The biggest costs of the CAP do not, however, fall within the EU but in the Third World, which cannot export nearly as much as it could to the EU as a result of prohibitively high tariffs, at huge costs to their development prospects. The CFP, although it involves a smaller proportion of the UK economy than the CAP has been proportionately even more damaging, leaving British waters grossly over-fished, with huge and unnecessary waste. British efforts to do something about this problem by creating marine conservation areas round the cost in which fishing should not be allowed have been made a mockery as we cannot stop EU vessels fishing there. To this economic and environmental catastrophe close to home needs to be added more cost to the Third World as roving EU fishing fleets have now moved south to decimate African fishing grounds. Neither the CAP nor the CFP were ever remotely in Britain's interest. We were forced to participate in both as part of the heavy price we paid for joining what was then the Common Market in the early 1970s. Indeed, the CFP did not exist until just before the UK became a member. It was created as we were about to join as a way for the rest of the Common Market members at the time to gain access to rich British fishing grounds - for which the UK received effectively nothing in return.
Excessive regulation now costs all EU economies a huge amount of money. Of course, all regulations benefit some people, otherwise they would never have been introduced in the first place. The problem is that the beneficiaries tend to be conscious of what they gain from them and vociferous in favour of their creation and retention while the cost is spread over the population at large which therefore has little interest in spending time and money opposing them. The result, however, is that in very many cases the total cost of regulations to the population at large vastly exceeds the benefit to a comparatively small number of people who directly gain from them. These net costs have been quantified both for the UK and for other countries such as Holland at a staggeringly large figure, equivalent to about 2% of the entire national output. In Britain's case, this is now about £30bn a year. Of course not all the flood of regulations to which we are subjected come from the EU but a large proportion - well over 50% - undoubtedly do. Furthermore, many of these regulations - such as those, for example, which prohibit vegetables being sold other than using metric measures - grate particularly on British people who are used to using imperial measures. Much of the reason for the unnecessary flood of regulations from the EU stems from its structure. The Commission has a substantial interest in the centralisation of power, which all these regulations reflect, while there is no effective democratic pressure to contain the ever increasing impact this has on ordinary people's lives.
A further major source of complaint is the way in which EU policies impact on our social and economic lives in ways - sometimes unintended - which cause serious problems. A classic current case is the extremely unpopular closure of thousands of post offices. This unwelcome development stems directly from EU Directive 97/67 EC "Privatization of Postal Services", augmented in 2002 by a further Directive, which aims to increase competition among postal services. While competition may have much to commend it in appropriate circumstances, in the case of post offices, there are very strong community and social grounds for keeping them open, especially in areas of the country, including villages ill-served by public transport which already suffer from deprivation and low incomes, making post offices there vulnerable to closures. Most people therefore think that the benefit from whatever immediate savings might be achieved by closing them is far outweighed by the long term costs in terms of loss of social cohesion as post offices disappear. Similarly, much of the reason for the chaos in our railway system stems from EU directives on transport which precluded what is by any standards a natural monopoly staying within public ownership. The result has been much higher subsidies paid to relatively unaccountable companies than ever occurred during the days when the railways were nationalised. Add to this the fiascos there have been, for example, over disposing of refrigerators and mercury light bulbs and it is not difficult to see why there is such widespread disenchantment with over-regulation.
Is there any way ahead? The British people think there is. They do not want to continue down the path of further EU integration, with all the discontents which this entails. Poll after poll has shown that the vast majority of people in Britain do not want to see Britain cutting itself off from our continental neighbours. On the contrary they strongly favour a set of arrangements, looser than we have at present, which will allow us to co-operate fully with other countries in the EU where this makes sense, without us having to become part of a United States of Europe. Will this ever happen? Time will tell, but a situation where there is an ever widening gap between what our political classes force upon us and what a large majority of the population want to see happening is not a healthy one. Sooner or later, the current opinion dam is likely to burst - probably made more likely by the current financial and economic difficulties the UK faces - and the need for our politicians to reflect what their electorate wants will then become more apparent than it is now.