Jenny Holt: The politics of compromise in EU debate

Underlying the debate around whether Britain should remain in the European Union is the notion of sovereignty and power.

'The European Union is a positive and able force' says Jenny Holt. Picture: Neil Hanna
'The European Union is a positive and able force' says Jenny Holt. Picture: Neil Hanna

Although key in determining how the UK operates internationally, these concepts often come as an after thought within the EU debate. The intrinsic dynamic of international politics - that it is vital to compromise - is generally overlooked. Within discussion around why we should remain in the EU, we must acknowledge that as a part of an inter-state organisation the United Kingdom will not always get its way. Not only is this okay; but it is a political necessity.

The argument of sovereignty loss is the legs of the ‘Leave Campaign,’ yet these legs have little to run on. First of all, they overstate the level of loss. Secondly, the campaign forgets our history and turns, misguidedly, to an assumption of dominant identity. This regressive approach is not something we should push for, but flee from.

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The European Union has benefitted our country, through the promotion of shared norms, in such a way that conflict with other European states has been reduced to a major unlikelihood. This is huge. The twentieth century was one marked by terrible wars, and beyond then the norm within Europe was one of conflict escalation. The progress made by interstate organisations, such as the EU, should not be overlooked.

A primary political component of regional organisations is the balance between communication and procedure. The EU plays an essential role within state relations. Through opening lines of communication with the capacity and stamina to absorb and resolve conflict, issues are solved without escalation into war. Each sovereign state secures its independence with acts of necessary compromise being guided by procedure in place.

This structure creates safety as each country knows how issues are dealt with, and that communication is a legitimate way of breaking issues down into something solvable. When a country knows another is going to behave a certain way, fear is reduced. When fear is reduced, defences come down and a space is then opened up to discuss potential solutions to conflict. The European Union has played a substantial role in shifting state behaviour; on the back of the United Nations post World War II.

Christian Kaurnet, an Expert from the Scottish Centre for International Strategic Affairs and Jean Monnet Chair in EU Justice and Home Affairs, highlights, “the EU has proven for decades that it is able to reduce and buffer conflict between member states, which has led to a much more stable European. It has shown its value to increase security throughout some of the greatest crises since the Second World War, such as the financial crisis, the greatest refugee crisis since the creation of the Geneva Convention, as well as the biggest terror attacks ever, such as 9-11.”

This issue of conflict resolution is not a scare tactic. Rather, engaging with the occurrence of conflict is to hold the truth of diplomacy. Conflict is persistent, and it is not necessarily expressed through war or intimidation. Conflict can be the result of many things. For example, on a psychological level something as ‘small’ as different identity groups can cause an initial conflict. Organisations like the EU work in a normative way to bridge the gap between identity groups. Although the United Kingdom admittedly has less of a European identity than other EU nations, there is a growing sense of unity particularly within the millennial generation. This is why the younger voting population within the UK has statistically been shown to be more pro-remain than other voting groups.

An essential aspect of the EU is the promotion of shared identity and normative values. Through operating within the EU structure, we are subject to being influenced by international norms. The more the UK is involved in the inter-state organisations, the more incentive we have to operate in accordance with international agenda and norms as well as having a voice within this influential structure.

Compare the current state of relations between European countries to that of the Second World War. Countries we now share trade, travel, culture, and international agenda with, were not so long ago adversaries. This shift shows the monumental influence of organisations like the European Union and the United Nations. Normative values (communication, humanitarian aid, Responsibility to Protect) have actively worked in our favour and continue to do so. Just because we have reaped the benefits to the extend that we feel far from war does not mean that we should forsake the institutions which have enabled us to come to this place, nor should we underestimate their continued importance. The EU, UN and regional organisations across the world, have on countless occasions actively promoted peace, security, and a move towards sustainable development.

UK engagement with the EU reflects our nations’ and politicians’ attitude to the outside world and understanding of international affairs. The next step taken by the UK will reveal whether we have a positive outward engagement or not. Through remaining within the EU and participating open heartedly with regional affairs Britain will be actively promoting communication and conflict resolution.

Ultimately, the most important steps we should be taking are ones moving towards a more secure and peaceful world. We have highly effective institutions that actively promote these values in a meaningful way. The United Kingdom can only move towards this point through a positive outward-looking attitude. We must once again appreciate the value of large organisations that have the capacity to deal with conflict in a way which one sovereign state cannot. Being a part of the European Union does mean that we will not always get our way in the small things. But let’s look at the bigger picture. In reality, our benefits cannot just be measured in economic gain but instead in the infinite value of international security and the promotion of peace.

Rose Ireland, SCISA Officer at UN House adds, “the traditional notion of Westphalian sovereignty that underpins pro-Brexit arguments is no longer an accurate reflection of international law and diplomacy today. Although state sovereignty remains a critically important principle in international law, it has also eroded over the years as a result of globalisation, the growth of inter-state organizations and the rise in prominence of non-state actors. Moreover, if Brexit does occur the United Kingdom will not be vested with absolute sovereignty. She would still have to bargain and negotiate with the European Union, but without the influence and benefits obtained through membership.”

Every structure and organisation, particularly large ones will have flaws. Yet we must acknowledge that the European Union is a positive and able force. Through the promotion of shared norms, behaviour change, conflict transformation, and progressive cultural shifts, the EU has shown its strength and positive impact. Politically, the United Kingdom must acknowledge the vital components of modern day diplomacy. Affirming the effective diplomatic structures in place does not undo our sovereignty. Membership within the EU will continue to require negotiation and compromise, but not to our detriment. Rather, adoption of a positive attitude to regional diplomacy will enhance our relations and further everyone’s overarching interests: peace and security.

Jenny Holt is SCISA Experts Coordinator at UN House Scotland. The SCISA Experts Service connects government, parliament and media with Scottish civil society experts.


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