As we all well know, the growing sense of unease over the past decade at developments in the European Union has made withdrawal tantalisingly tempting to many of our fellow Britons.
Indeed, those of us who believe our nation has a distinct, valuable economic and political contribution to make to Europe’s future are facing an uphill battle to convince a sceptical public. Much persuasion will be required to convince voters that leaving the EU is contrary to the national interest. For a start, at a future referendum Conservatives would need to elevate analysis of the importance of our strategic relations with other EU nations beyond that simply of internal Party management.
Closer to home and sooner still comes the Scottish independence plebiscite. Its conduct to date draws some important lessons for those who wish to see the UK (or whatever remains of it) leave the EU. Alex Salmond has failed until now to clarify what Scotland’s post-UK relationship would look like – and this is probably harming his cause. The same risks apply to those who would have us withdraw from the EU. Once the emotional appeal of ‘standing alone’ wanes, a hard-nosed reality sets in: what next?
Whilst opting out of future proposals for closer integration should pacify current sceptical UK opinion, it also makes further marginalisation of the UK within the EU more likely, and potentially prevents our overruling measures deemed to be against our interests. If the UK cannot retain influence from the margins, even EU enthusiasts will struggle to explain why it is in our interests to remain in the EU.
Geopolitically, it is difficult to argue that the UK outside the EU would retain its global influence, especially in a world increasingly dominated by continental-sized powers such as the United States, China and India. Harping back to a wistful place at the heart of the British Commonwealth is surely little more than that – an unrealistic, naïve reluctance to cast off post-imperialistic pretensions.
That is certainly how such a UK ‘alternative to the EU’ seems to Indian opinion formers. For Australians and New Zealanders meanwhile, the world has moved on. Whilst the love-in with monarchy shows few signs of abating any time soon, these countries increasingly regard themselves as twenty-first century Asian nations – and nor have they forgotten the sense of betrayal when we joined the EEC. As for Canada…well, its pride in the Royal Family is related to a desire to differentiate historically from an internationally unpopular USA, but its economic and strategic interests lie firmly within their own continent.
Even for the dwindling number of arch-Atlanticists in our Party, I fear that the prospect of swapping EU membership for NAFTA is painfully unrealistic – especially as the American political class increasingly turns its attention to relationships across the Pacific.
Moreover, the fantasy that the UK would be able in global affairs to compare itself with Norway and Switzerland in their relations with the EU (which in any event provide less flexibility than may initially appear) should have been put to bed by recent, terrifying PISA-OECD reports on UK educational standards. The plain truth is that we have more functionally illiterate and innumerate adults than either Norway or Switzerland has as an overall population. Our decades-long failure to educate a future indigenous workforce for the rigours of earning its way in the global race will be a massive drain on the UK welfare budget for generations. Let’s face facts: we are simply neither nimble enough nor sufficiently well-endowed in commodity terms to reinvent ourselves as a Norway or Switzerland on the global economic stage any time soon.
Our reduced military capability and rapid geopolitical and diplomatic developments may soon contribute to the UK no longer enjoying the prestige of a permanent seat on such a narrowly-drawn UN Security Council. Similarly, the chances of the UK sitting at the ‘top table’ in international affairs and projecting ‘British values’ upon the rules of the international system of trade and diplomacy would surely be seriously undermined if we stood outside the EU.
Remembering Bismarck’s maxim that ‘politics is the art of the possible’, we ought instead to build upon genuine progress at making the case for a new settlement within the European Union. In our project to remodel the EU, there is a growing band of potential allies. Even one of the original Six, the Netherlands, shows an open hostility to ‘ever closer union’. There has been a mood change within the EU since the budget settlement last year. Moreover, Angela Merkel, during her visit to parliament in March, accepted explicitly the UK position that Europe needs to protect the single market and the UK’s financial services interest, whilst allowing the Eurozone to develop its own institutions.
Nevertheless, if we are to stand any chance of success in extracting changes, we need to be much clearer about what we are trying to achieve, less belligerent in tone and more mindful of how we are perceived by fellow member states. Many in France, for instance, are perplexed by British hostility to the EU. Their view of the European Union is one of a club vastly expanded eastwards at the UK’s insistence, whose founding principles very much reflect British values of free trade, a huge single market and open competition. Moreover, it is a club whose members have gracefully granted the UK exemption from both the Euro and Schengen area. In much the same way that many in Westminster believe that Alex Salmond will never be satisfied no matter how many concessions or powers are granted to Scotland, so the UK is beginning to be seen as an eternal complainer, whose appetite for European reform will never be sated.
Other member states accept that the institutions and rules of the EU are far from perfect. However, many believe that if the UK was truly serious about reshaping the EU, it would have been much more engaged with French, German, Dutch, Polish and Spanish efforts to make its everyday workings and institutions more effective. Rather than getting stuck in with the hard work of incremental reform, British politicians instead prefer domestic grandstanding that inevitably results in constantly refreshed shopping lists of powers that must be returned.
We also need to appreciate another continental reality: a resurgent Russia has and will focus the minds of many of the UK’s instinctive allies for EU reform. Poland, the Czech Republic, Finland and the Baltic states will instinctively be reluctant to go out on a limb in opposition to mainstream EU and German interests. They want to stay firmly in the club. Poland and Lithuania also seek to hasten their path into the Eurozone as the ultimate insurance policy.
UK politicians and electors alike need to appreciate that the long and winding road to EU reform will not be made easier by insistent – and unrealisable – demands for an exceptionalist set of UK opt-outs.