It is an interesting paradox in the British approach to Europe that we take great offence when we are excluded from European organisations that we fought long and hard to be excluded from in the first place.
For example, take the latest bout of anguished handwringing over the risk that Britain will be ‘shut out’ of a club containing the Eurozone countries while they take decisions about… the Euro, a currency which we are very definitely not a part of.
It is true, as many Eurosceptics claim, that decisions taken within the Eurozone will have a monumental impact on the British economy. But the same can be said of any major trading partner, from China to the United States.
The fact is that by exempting Britain from vast swathes of EU policy – including the single currency – successive governments have left the UK with little more right to a seat on a Eurozone committee than to a seat at the Federal Reserve in Washington. That’s the problem with non-engagement.
This is my third and final piece for TSJ on Britain’s relationship with the EU. I’ve looked at why dreaming of an Anglo-American ‘partnership’ is a waste of time and examined why ‘renegotiating’ our position with the EU is a fantasy. All that’s left is to make the positive case for EU membership. Here goes.
EU integration has become highly unpopular in Britain over the last few decades, and while the majority of the British public and political class continue to favour membership, there is an increasing sense that we should be ‘taking back’ powers from Brussels.
From excluding herself from the Schengen free-travel zone to being the only country in the EU that doesn’t have to join the Euro, the UK has demonstrated itself uniquely committed to a two-speed, low-powered Europe. The recent Conservative backbench revolt over an EU referendum is about going even further, from a loose trade agreement to outright secession. In terms of Britain’s global influence, this policy is deeply misguided.
The era when the UK could feasibly function as a unilateral power is long-gone. It didn’t quite die with Suez, as our victory in the First Malay Emergency demonstrated, but it’s definitely over now. The disparity between the interests and relative power of the USA and the UK means that the idea of maintaining British power by hanging on to America’s coat-tails is ridiculous.
In a European state, on the other hand, the UK would be one of the most powerful and influential members. Constructive engagement and careful diplomacy would allow us to place British interests at the heart of European policy-making.
Take the EU’s lamentable approach to regulation – i.e. producing far, far too much of it. Has the free-market right ever stopped to consider that if it played its part in Europe, rather than leaving it to the technocratic Europhiles on the left, the EU might take a very different shape today?
Being pro-EU doesn’t make me a supporter of the Social Chapter or the Common Agricultural Policy, and the sooner the Right realises that the sooner we can set about reshaping Europe into a better form. In an era when right-of-centre governments run every EU state barring Greece and Denmark, the fact that we have a left-leaning EU policy machine is nobody’s fault but theirs.
Moreover, in an era when we the British appear to be less willing to sustain the armed forces needed to maintain our image and commitments abroad, or even defend our legitimate interests, European military integration should be viewed not as an abominable threat but as a salvation.
For example, by bringing the Falklands in as an Outermost Region of the EU, their defence from Argentine irredentism would be secured not only by Britain but all European nations. An increased deterrent and a great saving.
This army could also continue and strengthen the British position of careful military intervention abroad. Anglo-French military cooperation led to an Anglo-French initiative in Libya which has so far proven to be a great success. European military intervention in troubled states could provide a counter-weight to American military supremacy and help make liberal intervention look less like empire-building.
On the other hand, not being a part of the EU obviously poses problems for British foreign policy and global influence. For a start, ending up on the wrong side of the Common External Tariff would be a major problem for British trade, a great majority of which is with the EU.
Being outside the CET would not only raise the cost of doing business with Europe but also raise the costs of living by increasing the eventual retail price of a vast range of European imports. The first would damage business, hurting the balance of trade while slowing economic growth and job creation. The second would damage consumption, shrinking the economy and harming the retail side of businesses while greatly increasing the cost of living for ordinary people.
Additionally, if the Euro recovers then it will be on a stronger basis than ever. If it continued its former trajectory of slowly replacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency of choice, the role of the City of London in global finance would be diminished, supplanted by some European city. For all that the City isn’t the flavour of the month in British politics at the moment it is currently the only thing generating the money needed to sustain the UK’s extraordinarily high levels of state spending. That which hurts the City hurts us all.
Really, it comes down to economies of scale. In the 21st Century Europe’s nation states are uncompetitive, too small to muster much individual diplomatic or military clout or compete with the emerging leviathan economies of the second world. This is sad yet not inevitable. But whether the EU becomes the vehicle for the assertion of European values in the new century or a dysfunctional retirement home for post-imperial twilight states depends on how much we’re prepared to commit to it.