Our columnists can do EU flip-flops with the best of them

Flip-flopOne is often concerned about the mental health of some of our hacks. With Christopher Booker, concern becomes a certainty.

Here’s the symptomatic title of his today’s article: Leaving the EU Can Cost Us Even More Than Staying In.

There would no grounds for contacting a psychiatrist had this piece come from a Guardian ideologue. Yet Mr Booker has for years been one of the most vociferous campaigners for leaving the EU.

Has he changed his mind? Or has he, as an honest man, revised his position in line with new facts? Have his convictions been overridden by the calculator?

He certainly does a lot of sums in his piece, which infuriates me whenever the EU is discussed. Mr Booker ought to know that the EU isn’t so much an economic as a political and ideological project.

Hence number crunching can be no more helpful in assessing Brexit than it would be in pondering good and evil, vice and virtue or justice vs. tyranny. An issue of vital political, constitutional and moral import ought to be neither decided nor even argued on such petty concerns.

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we’ve allowed arithmetic to take the upper hand. What do the relevant numbers tell us?

Even accomplished economists, of whom Mr Booker manifestly isn’t one, can’t possibly calculate the long-term economic effects of Brexit. Certain suppositions can be made on first economic principles, but these are well-nigh impossible to express in precise numerals.

Any attempt to do so should make any intelligent person smell a rat. And even trying to figure out the apparently obvious short-term sums is a futile task.

Mr Booker makes this patently obvious by trying to reshuffle numbers with the dexterity of a three-card Monte player. First, he singles out one economic variable only: the amount of money we pay into the EU coffers every year.

His argument is that we won’t get to keep much or any of it when we finally leave. Uninteresting if true, I’d suggest – and even if true, which it isn’t, such calculations certainly don’t justify the article’s title.

Serious economists consider not one variable but all of them, such as trade opportunities gained and lost, the cost of having to comply with regulations vs. not doing so, the benefits vs. disadvantages of setting an independent economic policy, the effect on taxation, reduced pressure on social services including medicine and education – well, I may name many such variables, but I’m not sufficiently informed to pull them all together into a cogent equation. My point is that neither is Mr Booker.

Unlike me, he doesn’t seem to be aware of his limitations. He forges ahead, putting together an argument that is holey to the point of being dishonest and primitive to the point of being inane.

First he whips out his trusted calculator and subtracts £4.9 billion (our rebate) from our annual £17.8 contribution to the EU. The difference of £12.9 billion is Mr Booker’s point of departure.

“Of this… we shall continue to spend the further £4.5 billion that goes on subsidies to farming…,” he proceeds. This statement is meaningless unless he suggests that we’ll still continue to subsidise mostly French farming, which we do under the terms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Since that won’t be the case, most of the £4.9 billion will subsidise our own agriculture. We may argue about the advisability of such practices, and valid points could be scored on either side, but that would be a different argument.

Next. “Equally guaranteed is the £1.5 billion which goes to private bodies such as universities for research.” Same argument: whose universities? New argument: when we finally leave, we won’t have to be bound by any agreements into which we entered as an EU member.

Then, “It would not be wise to discontinue spending most of the £2 billion we give to 27 EU agencies, such as that which regulates medicines, because it would be more costly for us to duplicate their work ourselves.”

But we’re already duplicating this work, by regulating medicines through homespun agencies, such as NICE, MHRA and a whole alphabet soup of others. Has Mr Booker factored in the extra cost of also complying with the regulations imposed by the European Medicines Agency? Thought not.

“And if we are sensible enough to remain in the European Economic Area, giving us continued full access to the EU’s single market, we would be bound to continue contributing the £2 billion a year…”

This is a time-dishonoured logical fallacy called petitio principii (begging the question) – using what is the conclusion of the argument as a premise. We don’t necessarily need ‘full access to the EU’s single market’, and we certainly don’t need it at any price. If Mr Booker wishes to argue the opposite proposition, then by all means he should do so. Instead he presents as a fact what needs proving, which is neither grown-up nor clever.

Doing flip-flops can be fun, but care must be taken not to land on one’s head causing adverse cerebral effects. Mr Booker has neglected this simple truth.

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