In today’s Daily Telelgraph, Boris Johnson is full of sympathy for the plight of the steel workers at Port Talbot. Boris begins: “Everyone feels sorry for the 15,000 steelworkers at Port Talbot; everyone in this country will be hoping for a solution that will keep them in work. That is partly because their fate seems so unjust. This disaster isn’t their fault. They don’t have some new strain of the Seventies “British disease”. The plant is not a hotbed of union activity.On the contrary, these workers have agreed over the past few years to make substantial reductions in jobs and big increases in productivity. They make superb quality steel. They offer it at a reasonable price. It is just that the Wales plant has been overwhelmed by a series of misfortunes over which they – the workers – have absolutely no control; and these misfortunes, moreover, arise in policy areas over which these workers might reasonably expect their elected government to have some control, but which the UK has simply lost; abandoned; surrendered; supinely given up as part of our membership of the EU.
There is the massive global dumping of cheap Chinese steel, subsidised by a Beijing government that is itself alarmed by impending job losses in the sector. Then there are the excessive fuel bills that this country currently imposes on industry. When you are running blast furnaces the cost of energy matters a great deal. A recent report by the Business, Innovation and Skills parliamentary committee said that UK steelmakers were facing energy costs as much as 80 per cent higher than the EU median. Even if that figure is high, there can be no doubt that the UK’s various climate change policies – largely generated by Ed Miliband – have been highly damaging for British manufacturing.
Then, I am afraid, there is Brussels, which is exacerbating both problems. It is one of the features of membership that we must not only accept that about 60 per cent of our legislation – primary and secondary – comes from the EU. We must also accept a fatal loss of flexibility, an inability to take decisions that might be in our national interest – and an inability even to make good our own mistakes.
Take the glut of Chinese steel. It seems that the EU Commission has been considering a broad range of anti-dumping measures for some time. It is also clear that before Tata took the decision to close Port Talbot, the UK was one of the countries to be lobbying against such tariffs. Some have suggested that this was out of a general desire to suck up to the Chinese; others that it was a principled aversion to tariffs, and recognition that such import duties would hit domestic consumers of steel. Since the Port Talbot crisis blew up, the story seems to have changed. We are now told that the UK does indeed favour anti-dumping measures, though not of the kind that the EU Commission has been proposing.
The result? Probably nothing. Nothing will happen in the near future, if ever, because there is no agreement round the table in Brussels. Even when we want to change tack on tariffs, we can’t – because we have given up control.
Contrast the US, where – wham – they have applied 266 per cent tariffs on dumped Chinese steel. Contrast China itself, which – to add insult to injury – has just slapped 46 per cent duties on steel from Port Talbot. Britain can do nothing to mimic these steps, because we have given up control.
Exactly the same point can be made about energy costs. It is true that much of the burden of these high UK energy bills is self-imposed. There is a sense in which Miliband’s bonkers plan has succeeded. We have certainly cut our CO2 emissions – but only by applying such crippling levies to UK industry that much of this manufacturing has simply gone elsewhere – along with the CO2 production. We may feel virtuous about cutting our CO2, but it is unlikely that the planet notices the difference.
The Conservative Government is sensibly trying to make amends for Miliband’s folly, and to cut the costs of energy for industry – but at every turn we have the problem of the EU, and the objections of Brussels to anything that looks like state aids. Even when we are trying to address our home-grown mistakes, even when we are simply trying to bring down our energy costs so that they are more in line with the rest of the EU, we face the same difficulty: we no longer call the shots, even when thousands of jobs are at stake.
When this referendum campaign began, and I said that the key issue was sovereignty, I remember people giving me pitying looks. No one cares about sovereignty, they said. Well, losing sovereignty is just a fancy way of talking about losing control – and I think people care passionately about it.
As Michael Howard said yesterday, it is absolutely true that we cannot systematically check to see whether doctors practising in this country can speak good enough English. It is absolutely true, as Priti Patel has pointed out, that uncontrolled immigration from the EU has put a massive strain on the NHS. I spoke to one long-serving Hertfordshire GP who said she had never seen such pressure – and what can we do? Nothing. We can’t take emergency action against dumped Chinese steel, even with British industry on its knees. We can’t cut our own self-imposed energy costs. We can’t set our own language tests for practising doctors. We can’t control our borders.
What do we get for this sacrifice of control? Access, supposedly, to the giant EU market. Well, plenty of countries have access to that market. US exports to the EU have been growing faster than ours, and so have Switzerland’s – and both those countries have kept control of their democracies. The EU system is being daily exposed in this debate as an anachronism, and membership is increasingly cumbersome and anti-democratic. Nowhere else are they conducting a giant experiment of trying to fuse so many countries into one.
It is time to ignore the doomsters, get out, go global. It is time to take back control of our country – not to speak of about £10 billion net. We would have more money, and more freedom to rescue the British steel industry – and we might even succeed.