Brexit enthusiasts fail to grasp, or at least admit, the basic truths of what the EU means for the UK, argues Henry McLeish
The EU referendum is a divisive and dangerous distraction destined to put at risk Britain’s membership of one of the most successful institutions in the post war era and confirm that Britain has learned nothing from history. Little has changed since US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said in November 1962 that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”.
Acheson added: “The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out.”
Acheson was right about Great Britain then and now. Other prime ministers before and since have persuaded themselves that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that “the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow - without necessarily much regard for others - what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests”.
Britain has an identity crisis and is still looking for a role. A new world view and a sense of the scale of challenges facing the world would lead to an appreciation of the added value the EU brings to Britain and every other member state. Britain’s future lies in the EU
The so-called special relationship with the US - Atlanticism - explains much of our current world view and inevitably spills over into treating continental Europe as lesser players in this Anglo Saxon hegemony. For the populists and the right of the Tory Party, at least on the surface, this is a struggle to protect our national interest and the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. But this is far from the truth.
The right in British politics have created an elaborate smokescreen of plausible issues to obscure and distort their real agenda which has more to do with politics, the market, migrants, sentiment and nostalgia. David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership, based on the outcome of four reforms, is wafer thin and does not in itself represent a case for a referendum. The Tories are playing with fire. This is dragging Britain to the edge. It is worth looking in some detail at what extreme euro scepticism is really about.
Our complex and often hesitant national view of the EU has significant antecedents which have shaped both our enduring ambivalence towards its achievements and that sense of historical purpose it has successfully served for nearly 60 years.
In his “Tragedy of Europe” speech in Zurich in 1946, Winston Churchill was the first politician to propose a union of European independent states. “I trust, Soviet Russia, for then indeed all would be well - must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live,” he said “Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America - I say to you ‘Let Europe arise!’” But despite Churchill’s vision he also sealed our ambivalent attitude in later comments when he said: “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”
A post-war ambivalence to the great European project outlined by Churchill wished the great European project well but Britain would remain, like Russia and America, a cheerleader on the side lines.
The campaign to keep Britain in the EU started a few weeks ago, but the battle to take Britain out of the EU has been running for 40 years, sustained by large swathes of the Conservative Party, more recently Ukip and right-leaning newspapers and organisations such as Civitas and the Churchill Society. This is the background to the Cameron campaign to reform the basis of our membership and then hold a referendum; a distraction with huge constitutional consequences, the potential to divide an already fragmented and troubled Britain and to diminish further Britain’s already shaky relationships with our European partners and our standing in the world.
Much of the Ukip leadership and the extreme elements of the Conservative Party in Westminster and in England are hiding behind the plausible but synthetic and ultimately dishonest arguments that the EU has stripped away our sovereignty, is undemocratic, bureaucratic, secretive and is not transparent. This narrative then argues that all our ills are the fault of migrants, refugees, Islam and Eastern European benefit tourists who are simultaneously stealing all our jobs! The story is further strengthened by barely concealed hostility to foreigners, especially the French and Germans, who are the supposed ring leaders in the EU’s drive towards a Federal State. This is then sold with a generous helping of insidious nationalism, a dash of parochialism and a hint of the isolationism to come if Brexit succeeded.
The right of the Tory Party is consumed with a sense of historical elitism, a mistrust of the rest of the world which is very reminiscent of Republican thinking in the US where a contempt for the rest of the world and its institutions sits easily with a neo-con view which rejects partnerships, coalitions and pooling sovereignty.
The right wing of the Conservative Party has lost its way in world affairs and political honesty and threatens the future of Britain. The Conservative Party and Ukip seem incapable of facing up to the fact that Britain no longer rules the waves, controls an Empire or has any unique or special relationship with the United States. A new and troubled world is emerging.
This is a time to see the EU as our future and celebrate the contribution of the EU as peacemaker.
We shouldn’t forget that in 1870, 1914 and 1945 France and Germany were at war and militarism and an ugly nationalism engulfed Europe in a conflagration on an epic scale.
Post war, an institution, built out of the ashes of a continent destroyed by war, has delivered peace, security and prosperity and a great measure of solidarity in troubled times: the integration of three former dictatorships and the democratic revival of Greece, Portugal and Spain; made the idea of war between Germany and France unthinkable; the integration of post cold war Eastern Europe into the EU and the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union; the unification of Germany and the role played by the EU; and on the edges of the EU nationalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide have ended in the Balkans as they now clamour for membership, helping transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.
What the extreme euro sceptics fail to explain or even hint at is the degree to which the EU is run by member state governments, Britain included, not Brussels. That Brussels has somehow accumulated independent powers and has the ability to make decisions without the input of national governments or their representatives is the ultimate enduring fiction about the EU. The euro sceptics would have us believe the EU is some out-of-control monster desperate to destroy a thousand years of glorious British history. This myth making on an industrial scale has poisoned the debate on the EU.
So who runs the European Union? Despite the federalist elements of the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament, the 28 member states run the show in the form of a quadruple lock on how the member states exercise authority and control power. First every aspect of EU action has to be Treaty based, with each treaty having been approved by the heads of Governments in the European Council, each member state’s Parliament and in some cases like Ireland by referendum. Second, the European Council decides strategic direction and controls the process of integration.
Third, the European Parliament is the only Parliament in the western world that can -not initiate legislation - it still has extremely limited powers. Fourth, the Council of the EU comprising ministers of the 28 member states works on legislation to be dealt with by the EU Parliament and the Commission: member states control the legislation. Responsibility for the actions of the EU, since its inception, lies with the member states including our own. Do British governments sleep on the job?
The ambivalence of successive governments and political parties, especially the Tories, in the period from joining in 1973 has ensured a less than serious commitment to the purpose, progress and potential of this great European project. It now seems paradoxical and somewhat disingenuous to blame all the ills on the EU when Britain and the other 27 countries control the whole operation The perceived problems and weaknesses of the EU are more to do with a detached and uninterested Britain than the institution itself or the other member states.
EU “opt outs” are rarely talked about by the euro sceptics. Opt outs allow nation states to withdraw from legislation, treaties and certain policy areas. Britain has more opt outs that any other country in the EU covering the adoption of the euro and economic and monetary union, the area of freedom and justice, the Schengen border arrangements and the lesser known Charter of Fundamental rights which protects citizens and workers in the other member states.
David Cameron’s current reforms, with the exception of restricting access to in-work and out-of-work benefits which would drive a coach and horses through the four key principles of the Single market, merely continue the Tory assault on the EU. The issues of economic governance, sovereignty and competitiveness are minor and present no problems to the EU. This has nothing to do with the weaknesses in Britain’s relationship with the EU. None of the previous opt outs were put to a referendum, including our opt outs from EMU and the Euro. So what has changed? Why are we having a referendum to approve, with one exception, minor reforms?
The EU has also led the way in environmental legislation, the protection of employees in the workplace, social rights, human rights and benefits and policies for the family. These measures are viewed by the political right as regulation, bureaucracy and interfering with the market. The EU has protected workers and citizens in periods of Tory government. Again the political right don’t like this. Tory objections are political, not constitutional or democratic.
Britain should be leading in Europe. This is an opportunity for Britain to have a new world view and where we work with our European neighbours. We need to get over much of our history.
Never in the field of political endeavour has so much vitriol been thrown at such a remarkable and successful institution by so many people whose politics and party are considered more important than people and country. The Euro sceptics of Ukip and the political right are dangerous. They have no case for Brexit other than a very plausible con, well rehearsed over the last 40 years. There is an alternative story about the EU but it is not being presented strongly or loudly enough.