‘Widening not deepening’ has been a phrase synonymous with the British vision for the the European Union; it can now equally be attributed to the quality of debate surrounding UK membership. It’s a debate that has more contributors by the day, many of whom seek to define themselves singularly by their position on it. The increasingly urgent question of Britain’s future in Europe has become too great even for Parliament to ignore.
It is therefore incredible that a debate to which so much time and manpower is dedicated, has paid so little consideration or preparation to alternatives.
As a nation we need to negotiate our future with the EU from a position of strength, and core Europe will see the weakness of even steady UK economic growth, still based upon borrowing, as a legitimate alternative standalone model to EU membership.
Even among the most ardent of eurosceptics there continues to be a converse optimism that core Europe would not seek to punish Britain for leaving, for fear of damaging their own export economies. This is a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding of how core Europe, particularly Germany, sees and values the European project. Germany has shown itself willing to underwrite the economy of every Eurozone nation, at immense cost, to ensure the future of the project. It is a nation who plans its economy and foreign policy 50 years into the future, and is as a result now defining itself internationally as the world’s first soft-power super power through the EU.
For core Europe, if a nation left the EU, and prospered greatly from leaving, the example might be enough to destroy the European project. If that nation failed it might be enough to ensure and galvanize a federal Europe, with no nation risking the harsh climes of life outside of the EU again. Core Europe thus has much to fear from a successful, independent Britain.
So, if Britain leaves the EU and ventures out alone, seeking to define itself against its former membership, core Europe will undoubtedly seek to make an example of us, however costly it is in the short term to their export economy.
Adam Afriyie’s recent intervention managed to fire plenty of ammunition towards the current Conservative referendum pledge without hitting the target. Anyone skeptical about David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum only after a re-negotiation needs only to speak to fellow politicos on the continent to assess his chances of returning with any deal particularly distinct from our current situation.
I speak to MPs from Spain and Germany regularly, they admire Cameron’s ability to keep the wolves from the door thus far with rhetoric alone, but give him no chance of reforming the European project to British ends under the status quo, and that will swiftly become apparent.
The fundamental issue is that even a rebate the size of which Thatcher secured would not get to the heart of the problem -core Europe is building a federal state in the European Union, we either commit to that agenda, become a fringe EU Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) member while the rest of the continent moves towards shared sovereignty, or we leave altogether.
To gain a strong negotiating position with the EU to facilitate a sole EFTA trade membership, or to compete outside altogether, Britain requires a credible alternative of equivalent economic and political strength.
The notion has been put forward that a post-EU Britain could operate as a “Grosse-Switzerland”. The idea however that a nation of 60 million people with a diverse economy can operate a similar model to what is little more than a city-sized banker’s republic with the highest GDP in the world, is pie in the sky.
Realistic alternatives do exist; UK membership of NAFTA, an Anglosphere Union including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, a Nordic Pact or a re-calibrated Commonwealth are all models that could grant the UK an equivalent position in the world economically and politically.
Whilst the UK’s current position is fraught with difficulty, our strength should not be overlooked. Britain remains a valuable economic partner to any trading bloc, and in the not too distant past the US, Canada, India, Norway and Australia were all keen to explore the possibilities of a trade pact with the UK.
Both those who wish to leave the EU and those who wish to re-negotiate are guilty of ignoring the pressing nature of the mature consideration of alternatives to membership.
The process of analysis, debate and negotiation must run concurrently with our negotiations with the EU to be of value. If they do not then no meaningful re-negotiation will be achieved, and even if a Brexit is then forthcoming, for eurosceptics the victory will be pyrrhic. The UK will drift into an insecure and dangerously uncertain future on the world stage, making it more likely that we will leave only to return humbly to the EU later as we did before, accepting of a worse position.
It is now not enough to simply bemoan the failings of the EU, the first priority for all eurosceptics should be to find a superior and realistic alternative, and to actively and constructively work towards it.
This article also appears on the Bow Group Blog, by mutual consent.