Understandably political commentators and Eurosceptic MPs alike have been obsessing over the contents of the Prime Minister’s November letter to European Council President, Donald Tusk. According to taste, the famous four ‘baskets’ have displayed the breadth or paucity of the UK government’s renegotiation ambitions.
Yet in a speech to Chatham House three days earlier David Cameron set out what may prove to be the most compelling narrative for continued EU membership – upholding the UK’s national security interests. This lecture outlined the critical contribution of EU diplomacy in nailing down sanctions against Putin’s Russia following the secession of Crimea from Ukraine and in the painstaking negotiations with Iran leading to a deal over nuclear weapons proliferation.
Until then the referendum debate might simply have reverted to the more orthodox ground of economic advantage. But by mid-November the horrific terrorist attacks on the streets of Paris enabled the Prime Minister to stress firmly the importance of solidarity and cooperation in an uncertain, dangerous world. I also suspect this immediate closing of ranks with the French in their hour of need will not be forgotten when next month’s EU summit gets down to the business end of striking up a reform package sellable to the British public.
So whilst the official Remain campaign is being led by a prominent businessman, Lord (Stuart) Rose, whose primary pitch is the apparently calamitous consequences for jobs and investment of Brexit, the national security angle potentially allows David Cameron to carve out a distinctive, and increasingly personalised, appeal to the voters.
This is tactically wise but not, as some sceptics would suggest, inauthentic. The UK’s membership of the EU is supported by an array of leading business organisations, not to mention all the Heads of Government of the UK’s significant trading and Commonwealth partners (the sole exception being Vladimir Putin), but there is a stark contrast to the backdrop to the 1975 referendum. Then our association with the EEC was regarded as economically essential; today the UK is a markedly more self-confident nation, whose economy outperforms virtually every other member of the European club. In short even for those of us supporting continued EU membership, the economic case is less clear cut than in 1975 so a more expansively positive case for EU membership is that in this uncertain and dangerous world, it would be prudent to remain engaged within a full range of multinational institutions with growing foreign policy influence – the UN, NATO and, yes, the European Union.
The traditional Eurosceptic response to any claim that the EU might have a role to play in countering the security challenges of globalisation or instability on its borders is that NATO does this job quite adequately, thank you. However, today’s challenges are unarguably more complex than those of the Cold War, where a military response and alliance suited our own national security interests. Even in an apparently old school diplomatic conflict such as Ukraine, NATO made it clear fairly quickly that there was no military solution. It was an EU initiative that resulted in the imposition of effective economic sanctions.
In the areas of serious organised crime, counter-terrorism, money laundering and drugs and people trafficking, there is hugely fruitful EU-wide cooperation recognising the cross-border nature of the threats. Whilst we retain opt-outs, the rarity of their use is instructive and for the UK to go it alone in these areas would require massive resourcing and duplication of efforts already underway.
Similarly the historically much derided EU-assistance programmes, refugee quotas and imposition of sanctions have over the past year or two all helped to deal with the impact of instability in the Middle East, the Balkans and in the Russian and Turkish spheres of influence.
By contrast, those who support the UK leaving the EU argue seductively that we must reclaim our sovereignty and once more ‘control our borders’. But today’s acute migration problems within European borders are less a crisis of the EU, more one of globalisation. The stark truth is that if we were to leave the EU there would be precisely zero incentive for the French authorities to stop the vast number of refugees and economic migrants from crossing the Channel. Indeed many of those reaching the French coast already claim a desire to come to these shores, a fact recognised in our annual £7 million contribution towards the building and upkeep of the migrant reception centre in Calais. In the event of our leaving the EU, this tragic flow of humanity would simply be encouraged to undertake the crossing into the UK, presumably either by boat or through the Channel Tunnel. We should face some hard truths: it is only our common membership of the EU that ensures that France takes responsibility for these migrants whose plight would otherwise surely rapidly become a ‘British problem’ as people traffickers carried on their dreadful trade between France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the Kent and East Anglian coast. In short, our front line for the global migrant crisis would no longer be Calais, but would itself migrate to Dover and other English Channel ports.
Finally there is the raw, party political angle. An upfront argument for Remain based on national security will enable the Prime Minister to strike a statesmanlike stance. Not only does this play to both his innate political strength and the UK electorate’s view of Cameron as ‘Prime Ministerial’ but it also places him in sharp contrast to the policy pronouncements and appearance of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party.