I like David Cameron. I am sure as with all men he has his faults. But he does a highly demanding job and I believe he does it about as honestly as any political and government system allows anyone to do. I don’t sneer at his modestly privileged upbringing nor feel the need of the Islington Trotskyist to create a snarky narrative on how his background reflects his politics. Anyone can create wealth distribution policies, few people can create the systems upon which they depend.. I am not going to say I told you so, or that he should have asked for more (or less for that matter), or ask mischievously what happened to the manifesto pledges, never mind the table thumping speeches of a couple of years ago. And the poor man has not finished yet. Having put up with the tedium of trying to bend the institutional zealotry of the EU he now has to endure a political dogfight in his own backyard, while lesser men carp and snigger without alternative voice from the opposite benches. So when I say how sorry I am that Cameron’s mission to reform Europe has failed I genuinely mean it. In fact all things considered I have some admiration for his efforts, in a few short months he has actually made some progress.
The problem is it that it is not enough.
Europe is just beyond redemption. How many times do you hear mundane politicians say that they want to be part of a ‘strong reformed Europe’ without ever coming close to articulating what that would actually look like, never mind how to get there. The EU means different things to different people. To the big countries such as Germany and France who still have a global role it’s a way of harnessing markets for their economies and ensuring a security framework exists which prevents historical past mistakes. Federalism is ok provided they are still at the top of the pile. To the middle sized and useful countries like Spain and Italy it provides a set of ways and means to enhanced global standing where we can admire past glory. To the small countries such as the Baltic States it provides a status that they could never otherwise aspire to. It is like a grown-up version of Eurovision where they wave newly woven flags and talk about freedom and democracy, despite for the most part being less than a generation into it.
Europe is important to these countries, it took a few years to gain accession into it and now they are there they are going to exert their influence with all the might that one member state one vote allows them to do. It is like being upgraded unexpectedly and without the right clothes and means into business class; no champagne will be left on the trolley and I will have as many canapes as I can demand. OK that’s a bit ungenerous and there is nothing wrong with some social mobility, the problem is that the construct of the EU does not unify the way the way the EU project should work.
You cannot practise communism and capitalism at the same time. Yet that is what Brussels tries to do. A central unelected bureaucracy interpreting its mandate with independent action while national governments struggle to rationalise the direction of travel with their own set of (usually competing) interests. Certainly Europe has created a wonderful polished bureaucracy capable of turning the thousand mile screwdriver onto most aspects of our lives, but just like the former Soviet Union has proved incapable of turning to meet the major strategic challenges with which we wish it could successfully engage, witness mass migration or Greece and the Euro.
So where does this leave Britain? We just see Europe so differently from our neighbours across the Channel and beyond and they know it. Politically, culturally, historically for the most part we pre-date the European way of organising life. Our legal system is common law and struggles to integrate the civil thinking of Europe, our economic, diplomatic and military systems have a thousand years of global thinking and experience. We can see our language, literature and business practise operating across the globe. Our adversarial political system is actually effective in steering a country while by comparison our civil service is responsive and efficient at managing the detail of the nation’s affairs. It is doubtful whether this outlook is ever going to exist harmoniously with the enthusiastic federalists who through no wider understanding take the centralised control of events and lives for granted. In the same way as the majority of the member states see membership as an enhancement to their national status, Britain is faintly embarrassed by it. Given the diplomatic, military, economic and cultural instruments of power which the United Kingdom can deploy, Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe.
And the Referendum? It will be close. It is regrettable that so much debate focusses on the economic consequences of a departure. Probably, by a whisker it would economically be better to remain, if only for the reason that the administration and reorganisation necessary to leave would be enormous. In fairness the country was asked and answered the question of economic union in 1975. However the idea that Britain could not prosper outside the EU is absurd. Trade with Europe will not stop and comparisons with non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are ridiculous and scurrilous. They are small nations and economies and the bargaining power of the fifth largest economy in the world is too great for Europe to ignore and Germany does not want to wave goodbye to Mercedes and BMWs second largest external market. Do Japan, Australia, Canada and South Korea need to belong to large trade blocks to determine their economic interest? Of course not.
Sovereignty is a different question and one we were never asked. Recent accessions to the EU knew what they entering and were happy to do so. No one consulted us and this historical constitutional wrong should be put right. Asking Canadians and Australians for visas while handing out child benefit to Romanian and Bulgarian families in Bucharest and Sofia should at least be a decision of the UK Parliament. Attempting to organise collective European foreign policy always seems more PR than substance. Europe has failed to demonstrate a lead on any of the big strategic challenges which have been laid before it. Its nation’s leaders look the other way or wriggle and pronounce without noticeable effect. The danger of fragmentation always looms close; consider Syria and Ukraine. While British foreign policy is not without its critics, by European standards it looks positively sure-footed.
So Mr Cameron, thank you for your effort. But it amounts to organising the deckchairs on the Titanic. The EU is probably beyond reform even if the majority of member states would agree to it. If the vote goes ‘yes’ and the United Kingdom remains in the EU it is likely to be due to fear of change than relief at timely reform.
The author has lived in various areas of Europe including Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and the Baltic States. He regularly travels to eastern Europe and has travelled to and reported on the crisis in Ukraine and the migration into southern Europe.