by Harry Richardson, a first year British student reading War Studies with History in the War Studies Department of King’s College London; President of the KCL Conservative Society.
The Conservative case for the referendum
‘The United States of Europe’ – there are no other words in the English language so alarming to a Tory as these, and yet they were first uttered in Britain by the rotund, cigar-wielding statesman who has since become a Conservative icon. Unsurprisingly therefore, the perpetual dilemma that is ‘Europe’ has subsequently become the great paradox of contemporary Conservative foreign policy. Although the historic disputes within the modern Conservative Party over this issue are well publicised, the infighting that dogged the Major government is set to be eclipsed by the the impending referendum concerning Britain’s membership of the European Union that will become the defining political event of this parliament. And rightly so.
From the very beginning Britain’s relationship with the EU (and its structural predecessors) has been fraught with controversy and angst. From Charles de Gaulle’s decisive ‘non’ to the dubious context surrounding the 1975 referendum, the United Kingdom has always had a seemingly uneasy relationship with Europe.
And yet in the years since that referendum the precise composition of this European body, and the UK’s relationship with it, has changed irreversibly; with the Treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon the influence of Brussels and Strasbourg has extended to unprecedented levels, all without the direct consent of the British public. While the electorate in 1975 approved Britain’s membership of a trading bloc comprising of Western European nations, the organisation that we see some 40 years later is unrecognisable and unquestionably different to what was cynically promised by Harold Wilson during his second premiership.
With each new treaty the public was deceived about the true extent of the European project, most notably with the firm commitment to ‘ever closer union’ (something that was never discussed during the 1970s), while the public were continuously denied the chance to express their opinion about this ever-evolving relationship at the ballot box. Although, the case for a national vote may seem conclusive, there are still others who would stress the perils of such a decision. Some of these fears are indeed justified. Economic uncertainty surrounding the referendum is almost guaranteed. Yet surely the same can also be said of general elections. It would be a disturbingly undemocratic notion, therefore, to deny the public the right to vote for the sake of appeasing the markets. Consequently, the case for a new referendum to confirm or reject this relationship is long overdue, and indubitably just and democratic.
‘In’ or ‘out’?
I must first start by laying my own cards on the table about this question. As a firm believer in democracy I am strongly in favour of having this referendum, and yet I will happily concede that I have absolutely no idea how I will vote. I do know, however, that it would be wrong to characterise this argument solely in terms of domestic issues, such as immigration, as some on the hard right (most notably UKIP) have chosen to do. A campaign that promises to ‘regain control of our borders’ will almost certainly fail; simply appealing to a group of core voters who are intending to vote for your own faction anyway will never result in success, as Ed Miliband painfully learned earlier this year. Preaching to the already converted is an inherently doomed endeavour.
Instead, it is necessary to have a calm and informed discussion about the economic, political and diplomatic pros and cons of the UK’s membership of this pan-European body. That is not to say the vote will not be significant, however. The referendum in 2017 will define the future of the British Isles in a manner not witnessed since a Spanish fleet sailed from the Iberian Peninsula with the intent of deposing a certain ginger-haired spinster.
The United Kingdom, it would seem, has been given a choice. She can accept the loss of her former glory and consign herself to middling mediocrity in a consortium of other post-colonial European nations. Or, the UK can choose to gamble her future and try to follow in the footsteps of countries like Japan, whereby a nation with a strong manufacturing base and sound financial markets might be able stand apart from the regional and supranational organisations that dominate modern geo-politics, without diminishing into a second-rate power. In short, the immediate decision amounts to whether Britain should finally relinquish her status as a world power or risk her future on a whimsical promise of retaining a position of global relevance.
This would appear to be the abrupt choice provided by the metropolitan, Guardian reading Europhiles and the nationalist sympathisers of the Eurosceptic right. And while it may be tempting to view this dispute in quasi-apocalyptic terms if you fall into either of these intransigent camps, I would argue that there remains a third and widely underestimated alternative that is increasingly gaining momentum.
“We are with Europe, but not of it” – Winston Churchill
‘Associate membership’, ‘market membership’, ‘executive membership’: these are all terms that the BBC reported last week were being considered as alternative descriptions of the UK’s membership of the EU. The exact details of what this might entail are vague at this stage (having only been mentioned by a few No. 10 insiders), but the prospect of such a relationship is intriguing.
First, however, it needs to be understood why there is a problem with the status quo. Europe is in comparative decline in comparison with the rest of the world. The EU’s share of global GDP has already fallen from 30% in 1980 to 17% in 2015, and this trend is predicted to continue. Coupled with consistently low levels of growth across the continent (not to mention the current crisis in Greece), it would be prudent for any nation to direct their attention toward new markets overseas with more optimistic futures (Indonesia, Nigeria, etc.).
The political and structural flaws of the EU are also apparent, as demonstrated by the inability of the European Parliament to properly hold the Commission to account. Furthermore, although they are different institutions, ratification of the ECHR remains a condition for membership in the European Union, and consequently the the lack of sufficient mechanisms with which the European Court of Human Rights can be held to account by individual nation states has irked many in Britain. Combined with the significant differences in legal and political systems (Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and English common law are not routinely practised on the continent, and yet there is no domestic appetite in the UK for dispensing with these models), there is a strong indication that further EU integration would not enjoy the support of the majority of the British electorate (a referendum lock on all new treaty changes further complicates this).
It is worth pointing out, though, that this does not equate to an ‘anti-European’ sentiment within the UK (although this is undoubtedly what is espoused by some). Instead, it is perfectly possible to love all things French, German, Spanish, Italian etc., while simultaneously lamenting the desire to blend these uniquely rich cultures into a bland, artificially-concocted continental identity. From the mountainous interior of the Peloponnesian peninsula to the chilly shores of the Scandinavian coastline, it is hard to recognise a single, continent-wide character that can adequately define what it is to be ‘European’.
Nevertheless, the extent to which David Cameron’s renegotiation will mitigate the problems of the EU (in its current format) will depend on the precise scope of his reform package; if the changes he proposes are merely superficial then there it is unlikely that there will be any difference between a ‘reformed’ EU and the status quo.
On the other hand, while the problems of staying in the EU are well known, the risk of a ‘Brexit’ is more difficult to quantify. Many people have given the example of Japan as a role-model for Britain: a major exporting nation with the economic might to render obsolete the need for a regional bloc to cling on to. However, to grow the UK economy to be comparable to that of Japan, we would need at least a decade of consistently high levels of growth, fiscal restraint to sustain market confidence and free up capital, and far-reaching economic restructuring to promote the manufacturing industry.
All of this seems unlikely to occur in a country whose politicians are plagued by an obsession with spin doctors and focus groups, both of which result in a tendency to favour short-term, election-winning gimmicks rather than sensible policy decisions. For example, persistently low British productivity remains a significant long-term problem that hampers Britain’s ability to compete with major international exporters. While I’m sure that Britain could survive outside of the EU, the question as to whether it could prosper remains doubtful, especially if the predictions of a run on the pound and a mass relocation of large multi-national corporations prove to be correct.
However, there remains this question of ‘associate membership’. Whereas a minor tweaking of the UK-EU relationship runs the risk of maintaining the problems of the status quo, a radical reform of the UK’s membership offers the possibility of significant advantages shared by both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns. Consistent with Britain’s approach as an outward-looking commercial nation, retaining membership of the Common Market would allow Britain to benefit from continued free trade within the EU, while distancing herself from some of the more contentious issues (such as the Common Agricultural Policy) associated with Brussels.
Furthermore, should the UK no longer entrapped by the intrigues of Brussels politicking, the UK would be free to pursue her soft powers options. From the likes of the BBC World Service and the Royal Family, to the extensive myriad of actors, musicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and fashion designers, Britain’s soft power gives her influence well beyond her meagre size. And yet their ability to project soft power abroad depends on the retention of a unique British identity that allows such successes to be attributed to the UK, and must therefore remain distinct from the aforementioned notion of a characterless ‘European’ alternative.
In addition, the UK would continue to benefit from being the nexus of a series of international organisations: the G7; the EU; the Commonwealth; NATO; UN Security Council, and many more, while a looser relationship with less red tape would allow for a more competitive export market, with the additional advantage of enabling the UK to pursue trade relationships with other nations with higher levels of growth and consumption. Undoubtedly ‘ever closer union’ is bad for Britain. More bureaucracy, more stringent currency controls and higher external trade tariffs are not the answer to keeping Europe competitive in the global economy. Associate membership in fact aptly suits Britain’s historically lukewarm attitude toward Europe.
The question remains, however, as to whether or not all of this is possible? Remaining in the Common Market, but without full membership of the European Union, is very unlikely. The recent election result in Denmark looks promising for David Cameron, but it would still be a tall order for him to achieve such a fundamental shift in the structure of the EU in such a short time (how this would work in relation to Norway and the EEA is another question). The precise details of this associate membership, such as whether the UK would be free to pursue free trade agreements independent of Brussels, are still unknown at present. In the meantime we can only speculate (as I have tried to do), but what is clear is that neither the status quo nor outright exit are entirely appealing prospects.
It may be idealistic and hopelessly naïve, but it remains my firm conviction that a looser, trade-focused relationship with the European Union provides the solution to this dilemma. In mitigating some of the flaws of the current situation, while avoiding the very real risk of gambling Britain’s future on the false promises of flag-waving Little Englanders, this compromise seems like the best of both worlds. If it is possible, then associate membership must be the way forward.