The first thing to note is that Eurosceptics often complain about things that are nothing to do with the EU, but relate instead to the European Court of Human Rights. But this is an entirely separate body with separate membership, created by Britain and others after the war. Some eurosceptics don’t even know the difference, and others deliberately obfuscate.

So, having endorsed out the single market and set aside distractions like the European Court of Human Rights, let’s look at what is actually left on the list of what we do with our partners at European level — and wonder what exactly eurosceptics think they are objecting to!

    • Cooperation in foreign policy

      This one is a pure red herring. At present, if EU countries all agree (by unanimity) a common line, they can act together. This can range from voting together at the UN, to agreeing joint trade sanctions against Burma and Zimbabwe, to cooperating on joint naval patrols off Somalia to counter pirates. But if countries disagree, they go their separate ways — as happened, famously, on Iraq.

      So what’s the problem here? Cooperation can only happen when we want it to. When we do, it’s a way to amplify our influence and share the burden. But when we don’t, we (or any other country) can stand alone, with no compulsion and no risk. So ‘opting out’ of this would be an empty gesture: we would simply limit our own options, with no benefit whatsoever.

    • Cooperation on police and justice

      We exchange intelligence with our neighbours, and we have set up shared systems to help fight crime.

      This cooperation recently saw the return of Britain’s most wanted fugitive from Spain, thanks to its centrepiece, the European Arrest Warrant. It also worked to get back one of the July 2005 London bombers from Italy. If there are problems with it, we should improve it, not walk away from it. Ditto for the police cooperation scheme, Europol, which is headed by a Brit.

      In any case, Britain can opt out of this area without needing a negotiation or a treaty change. When the government said it was “minded to do so”, a storm of protests came from police forces across Britain, the bar society, judges, the House of Lords, and others. The coalition is now deadlocked on the issue.

    • Cooperation on civil law

      With around 2 million Brits living in other EU countries, why should we back out of the systems we’ve agreed so that their wills, divorces, child custody, health insurance and so on can apply across frontiers?

    • Cooperation on the environment

      Pollution is by definition an international question. How could we possibly deal with it alone? The environment needs joint effort, not least in Europe and its common market, the world’s largest single market.

    • Fishing

      Fish have the unfortunate habits of swimming from one country’s waters to another, so how on earth would we manage stocks, and tackle the problem of overfishing, unless we did it jointly? Granted, there have been a number of problems with this policy, but we could do nothing about them if we just left it to others.

    • Transport and other connections

      Working together on road, rail, shipping, air, broadband, gas, electricity and other interconnections is part of what the EU does. This is low-key work, but it’s to obvious mutual benefit. What advantage would there be in leaving it?

    • Research and innovation

      Developing cutting-edge technologies to improve health, manufacturing, the environment and so on is vital. But it’s also very expensive, and international duplication is wasteful. If we were offered an opportunity to share the costs through joint research programmes with other countries, why would we turn that down? Yet this is exactly what happens across the EU.

    • Erasmus student exchange

      What is it that Eurosceptics don’t like about this popular scheme?

    • Mutual recognition of qualifications

      Working out which diplomas from country A correspond to which qualifications in country B is important so we can avoid unqualified people being given responsibilities beyond their capabilities — sometimes with dangerous consequences. And when people are suitably qualified, they shouldn’t need to re-qualify in each country at huge expense. This is important not just for people coming here to work, but also for Brits working abroad. Why would Britain want to back off from this system?

    • Helping less prosperous regions

      When a common market was set up across Europe, it was recognised that some regions would gain more than others. So it was agreed to help those which lag behind. This was part of the deal for creating a common market in the first place, something we enthusiastically signed up to. And no wonder: British regions (especially the north of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) have all benefited.

    • Agriculture

      All industrialised countries subsidise their agriculture, some much more so than in Europe. It’s not like opting out of the EU would allow us to avoid this! In fact, having a common system across Europe is actually cheaper than having 28 competing and divergent national systems.

      The Common Agricultural Policy is expensive, but its costs are steadily falling. Intervention in agricultural markets used to be over 70% of the EU budget. It will fall to under 30% over the next few years.

    • International development and aid

      Like joint research programmes, joint aid programmes avoid duplication, share the burden and are more effective. Again, why on earth would we want to walk away from these?

So the supposed agenda of Tory eurosceptics ends up looking rather puzzling. If they really do like the common market, as they say, then it’s hard to see exactly what they don’t like.

I suspect that, when you scratch beneath the surface, the things that these people object to are actually the common rules for the common market — consumer protection rules and social standards, for instance. So, opting out of everything except the common market would not actually give the Tory eurosceptics what they want. What they actually want is to opt out of a central part of the common market — the social chapter, the part of EU cooperation which covers workers’ rights and social policy.

But this is never going to work. Sharing common rules is a large part of what it means to have a common market in the first place. No country is going to let one of its neighbours compete in its marketplace under a different set of rules from the rest, gaining an advantage simply by lowering health and safety standards or slashing the rights of workers.

So let’s not be fooled. The brand of euroscepticism that’s currently infesting the Conservative party is really about undermining the rights of British workers. In other words, it’s a backwards step masquerading as populist anti-Europeanism — an attempt to turn back the clock and replace progressive social values with unfettered markets, lacking protections for the vulnerable.