The EU does need reform but the Eurosceptics’ tactics will merely lead to an exit. Labour now has the chance to seize the agenda
It’s telling that it took an intervention by an American to jolt Britain out of the insularity of its debate on Europe. Until Philip Gordon, the state department’s top official on Europe, came to London with an unusually pointed message for Britain (summary: stay in the EU or kiss goodbye to the special relationship) the public conversation about Britain’s European destiny had gazed only inward.
Much of it had barely looked beyond Westminster, let alone to the rest of the world. It had dwelled chiefly on David Cameron’s political plight as he prepares to deliver a speech on 22 January that was promised more than six months ago, and as he confronts an army of restless better-off-outers both inside and outside the Tory tent, whether on the backbenches or in Nigel Farage’s surging Ukip army. At its most expansive, it had wrestled with what a British exit, or “Brexit”, might mean for the future prospects of these islands. But it had barely considered the impact of such a move on our neighbours, allies and friends.
Gordon snapped us out of that reverie. “We want to see a strong British voice in [the] European Union,” he said. “That is in the American interest.” His intervention wrongfooted the Euro-leavers somewhat. Central to their creed is the notion that waiting to embrace a post-Brexit Britain is our natural home, the Anglosphere, with the US at its core. Turn our back on the continentals and we’ll be hugged instead by our English-speaking cousins over there. Yet now the cousins are telling us we’re worth more to them inside the club of 27 than we are as little old England.
The Atlanticist Eurosceptics rushed to suggest Gordon was merely articulating a partisan Obama view rather than an enduring US strategic interest. But that’s nonsense. The Americans have wanted Europeans, including the Brits, to speak with a single voice ever since Henry Kissinger quipped that it would be handy, when he sought the European view, if he could dial just one phone number.
The US is not the only big player to grow cold at the prospect of a go-it-alone Britain. The story is told of Gordon Brown dining in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, who asked a pointed question: “The future is continental – China, America, Europe – which continent will Britain be with?” Brown offered the New Labour bromide about Britain as a bridge between the US and EU, but Wen Jiabao made the point again: the future is continental, Britain would have to choose.
Not that it needs a Chinese premier or senior US official to explain that Britain will be weaker outside the EU. Our European partners say the same thing to whoever will listen. The message was repeated again this week by a key ally of Angela Merkel, who warned Britain not to “blackmail” fellow EU members – just as George Osborne did precisely that, threatening to walk if Brussels doesn’t change to accommodate London. Such a warning from Germany matters and not only because it is now, even if reluctantly, Europe’s leading power. Cameron needs to be especially attentive because he is relying on Merkel to ensure Britain gets what it wants, calculating that Berlin will do whatever it takes to keep Britain on board, as a liberal, free trade counterweight to dirigiste, protectionist France.
All of which should make him alarmed by the noises coming out of Germany. Georg Boomgaarden, German ambassador to London, has read the reports that Cameron will demand a series of powers be “repatriated” as Britain’s condition for staying in the EU, and shakes his head. It’s one thing for Britain to opt out of the euro or the Schengen agreement on open borders – projects that were always optional – but anything that touches on the single market is, for him, entirely different. The single market is a constant, rolling compromise. No country can simply keep the bits they like, rejecting those they don’t. “Britain can’t do a pick and choose. The rest of the EU won’t tolerate it,” the ambassador told me. “The Eurosceptic wants to take all the positives, and leave everyone else to take the disadvantages. You can’t do that. If you pick and choose you blow up the single market.”
If Cameron reckons he will be able on Tuesday week to offer the prospect of a future referendum that would pit a new EU arrangement, with key powers returned to London, against withdrawal, then the ambassador suggests he think again. “Eurosceptics believe the choice is pick and choose or out, but this is really a choice between out and out.”
That need not translate into resigned acceptance that we’re stuck with the status quo. It’s quite clear there has to be serious change in the way the EU works, especially if the eurozone and non-eurozone settle into two permanent tiers. New rules will have to apply, perhaps even formally establishing what was once feared: a fast lane and a slow lane. But seeking such an EU-wide restructuring is very different to what Cameron’s itchiest colleagues have in mind. It’s the difference between a club of 27 reforming its rulebook and one member, hovering by the door, reading out a list of demands and threatening to storm out if he doesn’t get his way.
This is an opportunity for Labour, whose top table is currently divided between those who flirt with the idea of outflanking Cameron on the Eurosceptic right and those who believe Labour should unashamedly declare that Britain’s future is in the EU. A message of “reform, not exit” might chime well with the electorate. Extensive polling suggests that most Britons prefer continued membership of a looser, reformed EU over going it alone and that the British public’s Euroscepticism is soft and shallow. Intriguingly, Lord Ashcroft’s survey of more than 20,000 voters found that “the Ukip threat is not about Europe” – that jobs, welfare and immigration mattered to actual and potential Ukip voters far more than the EU.
The trouble for Cameron is that the noisiest, Euro-loathing Tories – including nine cabinet ministers, according to the Spectator – won’t let him follow the reasonable path of broad reform. They will insist he seeks a narrow repatriation of powers to Britain which he can never get. As Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, puts it: “The gap between the minimum the Tories will demand and the maximum the EU could give is unbridgeable.”
It would all be so much simpler if this were just a domestic problem, one confined to the shores of Britain and the Conservative party. But that’s the trouble with Europe. It involves those damned Europeans.