I’ll make no bones about this: I think it’s a no-brainer that we should stay in the EU and that the PM committed to this referendum only to appease his own right-wing backbenchers and to staunch the flow of votes to UKIP, which is no rationale at all for policy-making. You only have to look at the Boris stance (vote to leave the EU as a negotiating ploy, which is plain daft and would lead to much whinging on the right and from UKIP that the mandate was to LEAVE, not renegotiate) to realise it’s all about short-termism, personal gain and aggrandisement, particularly with a Tory Party leadership campaign hotting up in the next couple of years.
But equally, I am all in favour of true democracy in action – which would include referenda local and national, and not necessarily at times or on issues chosen by politicians. Since our current system is often akin to an elected autocracy run by and for the benefit of parties, not voters, it seems only right and proper that we should participate and be seen to have the last word – not that the result of this referendum will be binding on any party.
Our collective view has always been ambiguous, but then that goes back to a culture that has always been suspicious of mainland Europe, quite apart from the very many years fighting the Spanish at sea, the Germans in two World Wars, and the French at every possible opportunity. Ted Heath, a notable Europhile, willingly signed up to the terms of the Treaty of Rome in 1973, ratified by the 1975 referendum, but our politicians have been back-peddling ever since through a series of treaty changes, renegotiations, refunds and general moaning and bitching about our lot.
Truth be told, most countries seem to have lost their appetite for a truly federal United States of Europe, so the issue has been to what extent we want Europe in our lives – or to belong to a club that will reluctantly have us as a member, to paraphrase Groucho. To me that makes perfect sense, and arguably the failure of the Euro zone was not the principle but the fact that a fully integrated European finance policy was not implemented before its launch.
However, I cheerfully admit to being in a distinct minority on closer integration. But what has the EU ever done for us? Simon Sweeney’s letter to the Guardian lists but a few things – quoted at the bottom.
Although the PM has repeatedly described leaving the EU as a “step in the dark” the plain fact is that all “Brexit” campaigners have no idea how they would compensate for the loss of the biggest single market – and have neglected to say that continued trade with Europe would still require the UK to follow EU trading rules and would potentially incur tariffs in the process.
Would we, shorn of security in numbers, suddenly have the ability to negotiate more lucrative trade deals? No serious commentator believes so – but most believe we would be increasingly dependent on kowtowing to the US, to Saudi Arabia for arms deals, to China (which can take us or leave us), what is left of the Commonwealth, and anywhere else in the world that will have us.
Then the truth will be evident: fact is that Britannia no longer rules the waves, and that while we like to talk big we are highly insignificant without strength in numbers. The Trident debate is a prime example of that: it has no military benefit whatever, as all strategists know too well – but is justified on the grounds that as a member of the nuclear club it is a very expensive political toy to keen us on the top table. So it would be if we left the EU – we would have to find bargaining ploys so the rest of the world would not ignore the UK entirely.
So forgive me for having little sympathy for Cameron – he made a rod for his own back here. If you want to change the EU you do it for the good of all, not on the basis of fighting off the far right Eurosceptics and appealing to xenophobic interests. By playing a game of brinkmanship he is endangering the future of UK stability and trade – and the very fact he is playing a political game harms business and increases prices.
PS. Letter to the Guardian by Simon Sweeney:
At last we may get a debate on Britain’s relationship with Europe (Leader, 11 January). What did the EEC/EU ever do for us? Not much, apart from: providing 57% of our trade; structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline; clean beaches and rivers; cleaner air; lead free petrol; restrictions on landfill dumping; a recycling culture; cheaper mobile charges; cheaper air travel; improved consumer protection and food labelling; a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives; better product safety; single market competition bringing quality improvements and better industrial performance; break up of monopolies; Europe-wide patent and copyright protection; no paperwork or customs for exports throughout the single market; price transparency and removal of commission on currency exchanges across the eurozone; freedom to travel, live and work across Europe; funded opportunities for young people to undertake study or work placements abroad; access to European health services; labour protection and enhanced social welfare; smoke-free workplaces; equal pay legislation; holiday entitlement; the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime; strongest wildlife protection in the world; improved animal welfare in food production; EU-funded research and industrial collaboration; EU representation in international forums; bloc EEA negotiation at the WTO; EU diplomatic efforts to uphold the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; European arrest warrant; cross border policing to combat human trafficking, arms and drug smuggling; counter terrorism intelligence; European civil and military co-operation in post-conflict zones in Europe and Africa; support for democracy and human rights across Europe and beyond; investment across Europe contributing to better living standards and educational, social and cultural capital.
All of this is nothing compared with its greatest achievements: the EU has for 60 years been the foundation of peace between European neighbours after centuries of bloodshed. It furthermore assisted the extraordinary political, social and economic transformation of 13 former dictatorships, now EU members, since 1980. Now the union faces major challenges brought on by neoliberal economic globalisation, and worsened by its own systemic weaknesses. It is taking measures to overcome these. We in the UK should reflect on whether our net contribution of £7bn out of total government expenditure of £695bn is good value. We must play a full part in enabling the union to be a force for good in a multipolar global future.
Lecturer in international political economy, University of York
PPS. Don’t take my word for it. Here are the thoughts of the longest-serving Minister for Europe in living memory:
The previous record-holder was Douglas Hurd, who served four years, from 1979 to 1983. Lidington has now visited every sizeable European country except Belarus, watching his foreign counterparts come and go.
His longevity has been vital in helping David Cameron to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the EU through behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Lidington says he can pick up the phone to other Europe ministers and meet on friendly terms without having to go through “ice-breaking” formalities every time. He has built an encyclopaedic knowledge of European history and the reasons why other EU states want more integration.
“I remember talking to the Estonian foreign minister, who said: ‘We lost a quarter of our population between the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 and the partisans being put down by Stalin in 1946, and we were fought over by the Nazis and the Soviets. We then had to endure Russian rule for half a century.’ When you have had that happen to your country you grab every little scrap of European integration that is going, to try to stop that ever happening again. If you are going to be a British minister, you need to understand the mindset and the history of those other countries and why they think as they do.”
But as the UK approaches its moment of truth on Europe on 23 June – the date of the referendum – the time for quiet diplomacy abroad is over. Instead Lidington, a mild-mannered man by nature, is ready to launch a full-frontal attack on anti-EU forces at home – in his own party and outside – to make the case for UK membership. The Eurosceptics, he says, lack coherent arguments and are simply wrong on detail. He is dismissive of justice secretary Michael Gove’s claim last week that David Cameron’s renegotiation deal has no legal force. “It is nonsense,” he says. “Michael has … Michael, Michael, Michael [there is exasperation in his voice] … a view that we should not be in the European Union. I think he is wrong.” Not only do top legal minds in government and academia, as well as in the EU, insist it is binding, he says, but there is a clear historical precedent from Denmark and Ireland to show it will have immediate legal force.
Gove and Boris Johnson are part of an Out campaign that is promoting incoherent and contradictory arguments while having no clear idea what living outside the EU would look like, he says. “I do find it extraordinary that those who want Britain to leave the EU seem to hold to two utterly contradictory propositions at the same time. Their first belief is that inside the EU we cannot achieve any meaningful change and that too often the other countries are in some sort of nefarious conspiracy against our interests. But their second belief, which they hold equally firmly, is that outside the EU these very same countries and governments would rush to give us some new deal that has all the benefits of EU membership with none of the things that apply to others. Look at Norway and Switzerland. They both have higher EU migration rates than we do, they both have to pay into the EU budget, they both have to accept EU rules and regulations as the price for access to a free-trade single market. There is no getting away from that. I think the Leave campaign is still in a state of confusion about what they actually mean by ‘leave’.”
Lidington is suspicious of the EU’s grands projets and says it should do more to “respect the grain of national loyalty and national affection”, but insists that its original motives were “noble ones” and remain so. The EU is a guarantor of peace, a means of resolving argument through conversation, not conflict, and, through the single market, a source of prosperity. It is remarkable to hear a Tory minister let off the leash to make a case for Europe, taking on around 150 Conservative MPs and a clutch of cabinet ministers who want to leave. Getting out, he says, would be a nightmare process that could take a decade to negotiate, leaving business in “limbo”.
“The treaties of the European Union say that, once a country has decided to leave, then they are excluded from the treaty after two years, unless there is unanimous agreement to extend that period.” Such an extension would be highly unlikely. So the UK would be cut out of EU trade and other agreements in 2018 before having agreed deals to put in their place. Reality would bite. “We would be outside the treaties and subject to tariffs, and everything we take for granted about access to the single market, trade without customs checks, or paperwork at national frontiers, the right of British citizens to go and live in Spain or France: all those would all be up in the air. It is massive. It is massive what is at risk.”