This article was first published on The Commentator.
The Prime Minister dug deeply into the depths of his desperation last week. Apart from announcing he is sending out a biased pro-EU leaflet to every single household in the United Kingdom — at a cost to the British taxpayer of £9.4 million — he is anxiously trying to convince a sceptical electorate of the benefits of the EU and the economic disaster which would result from Brexit.
Last Tuesday he compared Brexit with ‘self-harm’. This is a distasteful and rather odd comment coming from the same man who called for the country to be ‘more mature’ about mental health.
At the same time, he highlighted the 116,000 small businesses which export to the EU — a rather pitiful number considering the fact there are 5.4 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK. Cameron’s figure ignores all the rest.
He fails to recognise the reality, which is that less than 5 percent of UK firms directly trade with the EU, but 100 percent are subject to EU regulations. This results in UK SMEs being swamped by EU red tape, and being forced to waste approximately 28 hours a week on this alone.
Leaving would greatly reduce this significant burden and would help the vast majority of UK businesses Cameron is falsely claiming to represent.
Cameron fails to even consider this indicating he cares far more for his friends in the City than he does for the small businesses which make up over 99 percent of UK companies. These are not the most absurd of Cameron’s arguments however. This honour has to go to his rather bizarre claims on aviation which, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, are starting to resemble a plane crash.
In trumping up cheap flights, the Prime Minister believes he has discovered something which cannot be countered by Eurosceptics. It is true the EU has played an active role in ensuring cheaper flights across the continent. The Single European Sky regulations have provided greater competition in the European aviation market and prices have fallen as a result.
However, Eurosceptics have reasonably asked whether cheap air travel is really the height of all human aspiration. Alongside questioning if it really provides value for money considering the £500 billion we have paid in EU contributions.
Cameron clearly believes this is a winning argument as a positive consequence of our EU membership and which has been beneficial for the electorate as a whole. Sadly for the Prime Minister, a closer examination of the legislation and facts reveal s the EU’s cheapening of flights is not the Holy Grail he seeks.
The European Airlines industry is governed by several pieces of EU legislation — most notably the Single European Sky regulations and the European Aviation Safety Agency. The major result of these is that all airlines are considered ‘European’ in nationality and therefore cannot be prevented from setting up air routes which do not include their country of origin.
For example, it would be illegal for Italy or Belgium to prevent EasyJet setting up a route between Rome and Brussels.
Traditionally, airlines are only permitted to set up routes which either start or end in their country of origin. So, if we are to take this legislation at face value, there may be some truth to Cameron’s argument that Brexit would restrict UK airlines operating inside the EU.
Unfortunately for the PM, there are several flaws in his reasoning. Those of you who have recently travelled through Manchester or Luton airports may have noticed the large advertising campaign run by Turkish Airlines “Europe’s best airline”. These promote several new routes all across Europe.
Closer examination of the legislation reveals there are agreements in place which allow for countries to be part of the Single Sky Agreement… without being a member of the EU. Norwegian and Swiss airlines, for example, are granted full access to the rest of Europe’s aviation market — a status which the UK could easily adopt following Brexit.
Cameron will undoubtedly suggest the UK will fail to negotiate such agreements post-Brexit. This is only acceptable if we are basing future British negotiations on Cameron’s own past record — which is not particularly impressive.
The reality is the UK is a crucial market for European airlines, with millions of EU passengers flying to and from Britain every day. Airlines such as Vueling and Lufthansa would undoubtedly suffer if their market access was restricted. This would result in them having excess stock in planes and staff which would take time and money to move to other routes.
Airlines operate with very high fixed costs and tight profit margins, so we can be sure they would make their displeasure known to their respective governments.
There is also the American market for European airlines to consider. Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow are three of the major of trans-Atlantic hubs, with hundreds of thousands of passengers making the journey from these airports. Many European airlines specialise in acting as a secondary carrier from these hubs — bringing passengers into Europe once they have travelled from America.
The barriers for entry for these airlines to run trans-Atlantic routes are, and would continue to be, prohibitively high. It is therefore overwhelmingly in their business interest for Britain to remain an integral part of the European market.
It is not just European airlines who would suffer. Many smaller European airports rely heavily on the presence of EasyJet and Ryanair and the landing fees they bring in order to remain profitable. Restricting their access would damage both the airports and European consumers as a whole who would have less choice and flexibility.
It is clearly in the interests of the European aviation industry for the British market to remain open to them following Brexit. Regardless of British membership of the EU they will lobby extensively to protect their own businesses. Given the previous success they have enjoyed in lobbying the EU (see below) there is good cause to believe they would be as successful again.
Given all the damage which would be caused to European companies if Britain is not allowed to remain party to the aviation agreements, it would be highly unlikely for the EU to refuse to act in everyone’s interests.
Even if the EU were to act in a vindictive and self-defeating manner, there is still little reason to believe Cameron’s predictions of disaster for UK-based airlines. Ryanair, an Irish company, would be unaffected by Brexit, so there would be no issue concerning their cheap flights or British-based jobs.
British Airways would still have complete access through its partnership with the Spanish company Iberia, which runs most of their intra-EU flights presently. Iberia would simply take the remaining intra-EU flights, whilst BA continues to focus on the more lucrative trans-Atlantic routes.
The only company which would potentially have issues if Britain is forced out of the aviation agreements would be EasyJet — which explains its highly active role in the Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) campaign. However, even they need not despair, as their prominence in the short-haul market would make finding a European partner, in the BA/Iberia mould, straightforward.
This would enable it to maintain its current routes and capacity without any major costs or inconvenience caused to passengers. Cameron’s warnings of a collapse in the British aviation industry in the event of Brexit are a complete fantasy. It is in everyone’s interests to reach a new agreement post-Brexit – similar to those held currently by Norway and Turkey.
Another issue which Cameron completely fails to comprehend is the potential danger of the EU’s own aviation regulations. These, like the majority of EU regulations, have been subject to intense lobbying by large, self-interested corporations and business groups, with the result that they are in fact detrimental, and even dangerous to airline staff and travellers.
The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) has issued several warnings concerning the EU’s Flight and Duty Time Limitations, which allow pilots to continue to work despite having been awake for 22 hours. They have also increased the number of hours pilots are allowed to fly over a fortnightly period from 95 hours, as they were under British law, to 110 hours.
BALPA has regularly commissioned surveys of its members — with over half admitting they have fallen asleep in the cockpit. The same survey reveals 84 percent of pilots believe tiredness has compromised their flying abilities, with half of pilots citing pilot fatigue as the most likely cause of plane crashes.
Eurosceptics often speak of the financial burden of EU legislation, but here is a case where EU legislation is actually endangering lives. The EU completely ignores these concerns, which demonstrates its ultimate commitment is to the commercial interests of large multinationals and their lobbyists rather than the people of Europe.
The Prime Minister might have thought he was onto a winner in talking of cheaper air travel when he spoke about the UK’s economic security within the EU at the PricewaterhouseCoopers meeting in Birmingham this week.
However this, like the majority of Project Fear’s claims, does not stand up to close scrutiny. The reality is that whilst the EU has helped, or at least not hindered, the growth of cheap flights across Europe, how much of this is due to our EU membership is debatable. Air travel has become less expensive across the globe, and is it is far from being a Europe-only phenomenon.
The primary concern of the Great British Public is whether cheap flights will suddenly stop in the event of Brexit. And is clearly a ridiculous piece of scaremongering.
There are numerous countries which have full access to the European aviation market without EU membership and Britain would swiftly join them. It would be far too costly for European airlines, airports and consumers as a whole for this not to be the case.
Leaving the EU would enable the UK to have the best of both worlds — enjoying the access and opportunities we have now, whilst being free to implement more stringent safety regulations to protect airline staff and passengers.
The Prime Minister’s arguments for remaining in the EU increasingly resemble an aeroplane in complete free-fall. It is up to the British people to ignore the absurd claims of the increasingly erratic Cameron and vote to Get Britain Out of the EU.