Veterans of Britain’s turbulent relationship with the European Union could be forgiven for thinking that recent developments in that saga were a case of déjà vu all over again. But it is, potentially at least, a good deal worse than that. Support for British membership has been damaged by the Eurozone crisis; many people are turning inwards rather than towards more international cooperation as they are faced with the period of austerity; and a substantial proportion of the parliamentarians of one of Britain’s two main political parties is calling for policies which would, whether they intend that or not – and quite a few of them do intend that – push the country towards the exit. So that outcome, some years down the road, which would in my view be bad for Britain and bad too for the European Union can no longer be discounted as self-interested scaremongering, even if it is far from being inevitable.
What has gone wrong? There have been faults on both sides of the Channel – British failure to recognise the significance of the European project and join from the outset, the rebuff of its original application to join the long-running battle over budget contributions, more fundamentally the very different historical legacies which different countries have brought to the European Union – but it makes little sense to dwell on those now. What is needed are policies which can straddle those fault-lines even where they cannot be erased end a better understanding of the practical virtues of the European Union’s motto, chosen for its ill-fated constitutional treaty, “unity in diversity”.
The global financial and economic crisis which engulfed the world in 2008 would have tested the European Union severely whether or not the single currency had by that time been established. So it makes no sense to blame the Euro for everything that has happened. Nor can any of the European Union’s twenty-seven governments afford to neglect that it is in our collective interest that the Eurozone should survive and prosper and avoid a chaotic collapse which would damage all of us. The hard fact nevertheless remains that, for the foreseeable future, the European Union is going to consist of member states within the Eurozone and member states outside it; and, since it is unlikely that the errors of premature admission to the Eurozone will be repeated, that foreseeable future could be a long time indeed, so we better get used to that and learn to live with it to our mutual benefit, minimising the differences between the two groups. In that context the British coalition government’s decision to reject the fiscal union treaty was unwise, given that the different obligations on the two groups are clearly spelled out in it. And we do all share the view that fiscal austerity, which is proving every bit as painful in this country as elsewhere in Europe, must not be regarded as an end in itself but rather as part of a concerted growth strategy.
One of the ironies about Britain’s disenchantment with the European Union is the failure to appreciate the extent, to which over the last thirty years, policies championed by Britain have dominated the political debate and decision-making in Brussels. Nor have those policies lost their value now, although they are being sharply contested. The single market is a remarkable achievement contributing far more to the prosperity of Europe’s citizens than the original customs union of 1958 ever did. And, just as we need more Europe to enable the Eurozone to overcome the current crisis, we need more single market to enable us to grow and prosper in the future. Enlargement has transformed what started as a purely Western European entity into a union which genuinely responds to the aspirations of the founding fathers when they made it clear that every European country which wished to join and which could assume the responsibilities of membership would be welcome. There is an unfinished enlargement agenda in the Balkans and in Turkey which Europe would damage itself severely if it failed to complete. Worldwide the objective of achieving freer and fairer trade policies is under threat from protectionist pressures both within and outside Europe. It is surely in the interest not just of Britain but of all those member states of a like mind on some or all these policy areas that Britain’s advocacy of them should not be weakened by doubts over its continuing commitment to membership.
And then there is that building site known as the Common Foreign and Security Policy, where Britain’s influence is perhaps greater and its constructive involvement is more essential that in other fields of European policy making. The European Union’s performance over Libya, when the Responsibility to Protect, to which everyone of its member states had signed up at the UN Summit of September 2005, was at stake, fell far short of what was needed; the same could be said of the divisions which invariably appear when the Middle East Peace Process or Israel’s human rights record in the Occupied Territories and Gaza are under debate; and the failure to articulate common policies towards Russia is glaring. None of these failures need be accepted as definitive; none of these issues is going to disappear from the international agenda. And, with the United States pivoting towards its relations with Asia, the need for Europe to get its act together is compelling.
If Britain is to overcome its European demons and uncertainties that can only be done by pursuing positive objectives and by setting out a clear vision for the future which appeals also to its European partners. And those partners have, I would suggest, a real interest of their own in the success of such an approach.