What does ‘In’ look like?
We keep hearing questions about what ‘Out’ looks like (for which I have an answer) but what does ‘In’ look like?
The answer starts with the recognition that the European Union has already been thrashing about for answers to the big problems it faces and has been making a mess of them at every step. Whether it is addressing the fundamental flaws in the euro, which were all predicted long ago (and sniffily ignored by many Remainers), or confronting the mass migration challenge or simply finding its place in a globalised world, the European Union is utterly lost with nothing but its old integrationist totems to cling to.
It’s an old monolith in an agile and internet-connected world.
The exact specifics of what the EU will actually do in future are unknown but this is an organisation that has always had one answer for everything — ‘More Europe’ — an impulse that is in its founding DNA so it will clearly push for that.
The more pertinent question is therefore “What will ‘More Europe’ look like?” and given that David Cameron has stated this is a once-in-a-generation referendum, we can be forgiven for introducing our own set of ‘coulds’ to this debate.
For starters, we now know that Turkey’s integration into the Schengen zone and its ultimate accession to EU are suddenly several leaps closer. Turkey has twice the population of Poland and about the same GDP per capita but this is a country that has been tilting further and further away from western standards and values, whether on human rights, freedom of speech, gender equality and more. Its current president has cited Adolf Hitler as an example of an effective presidential system. Turkey is also a country with a foot in the unstable Middle East, bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran, and with its own related tribal troubles courtesy of its Kurdish minority.
It is now very easy to foresee circumstances arising within a generation (and even within a decade) that bring Turkey into the EU as a full member, with all the problems that would provoke on immigration, stability and security for other EU member states. For those arguing that the EU makes us more safe and secure, the latest Turkey-EU developments (driven by Angela Merkel, with Britain on the sidelines) are a very inconvenient truth.
The EU could then move to throw a tough external border around itself — an iron curtain, even — to enable it to once again open up its internal borders which are so important for the EU to meet its objectives for statehood but which have been rising under pressure from the migrant crisis. That would require an EU border force bolstered by an EU army (Nick Clegg’s much-denied “dangerous fantasy” that keeps being raised in Brussels) and an EU navy. With Britain still the fourth largest military power in the world, we could be asked to help provide resources. All under the EU flag of course.
In time, there could be pressure to reconstitute NATO to recognise the reality of the EU’s growing power and the members states increasingly subordinate role within it. Questions could again arise about the seats on the UN Security Council, given the EU growth towards becoming a single unit much like the USA, China and Russia which the EU sees as its peers and competitors.
Link that to the EU’s growing involvement and ambitions to represent itself on global trade rule-making bodies and it’s not difficult to see how Britain could steadily disappear from the world stage. A generation would do it.
Within the EU, as per Turkey developments and as per Cameron’s extremely limited renegotiation outcome, we know that Britain will continue to be outside the EU’s engine room with little influence. In crucial respects we are already semi-detached from the EU (on the Schengen and the euro) but the corollary to this is a semi-detached influence in EU affairs. We therefore already hold de-facto second class status and this could gradually develop into third class status even with a Remain vote.
Now, some on the Remain side might say that this is a good thing as it means we stay in the EU yet engage on a basis that is more suited to the UK’s needs. But as those Remainers are fond of telling us on the Leave side — you can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t on the one hand say we are staying in the EU to extend our influence yet increasingly take a more and more peripheral role within it with all the diminished influence that entails.
That is a formula for the UK being ‘done to’ and paying for the privilege. An abusive partnership.
Yet that is what the UK in the EU will become— a diminished state in a club whose core integration objective it disagrees with, even after a Remain vote…and a club that will feel it can push harder and faster towards its ultimate objective, probably leaving the UK trailing and moaning all the way.
And after a Remain vote, you can forget complaining about mass immigration. It will be inevitable, like death and taxes.
The UK will be increasingly isolated within the EU yet constrained by it — prevented from signing its own trade deals, prevented from having its full voice at the global ‘top table’ and cutting an increasingly sad figure. Our European friends like Norway and Switzerland who are not actually in the EU will find themselves bullied ever more into conforming to the EU way (this is why a Leave vote is in their interests too).
More and more, it will look like the UK is only in the EU to tick a ‘virtue box’ that makes some folk feel ‘internationalist’ and ‘outward-looking’. In many respects we have already reached that point, despite the globalist Brexit outlook that takes ‘internationalism’ and ‘outward-looking’ to another level.
On the EU’s future, we also know that the eurozone will stagger towards further integration because it needs to. And it will do so in an atmosphere of crisis that has never really left it since 2008 and which will blow up again when it faces more economic headwinds. Britain will again be on the hook to bail out this flawed experiment despite what politicians here will tell you — we’ve been here before, with assurances that were promptly broken.
There’s nothing Britain can do either inside or outside the EU while the eurozone takes these further steps to becoming a single country.
And while all of the above is going on, Britain’s politics will be held in greater and greater contempt by the electorate as it seems to become ever more opaque, uncontrollable and out of reach of ordinary people. However if you rightly worry that this would cause a backlash in Britain, spare a thought for some of those eurozone states where meaningful democracy will be sacrificed on the altar of EU integration. The French in particular won’t take that lightly and that’ll cause all sorts of ructions — essentially an amplification of what we have seen to date with Le Pen’s Front National.
But whether in France or in Britain, at the point this blows up we will all be far more entangled with the EU than ever before and disentangling will be much harder to the point of being practically impossible without something akin to a big political meltdown and revolution.
And yet if the EU manages to muddle through the various crises that will hit it in the coming years (and assuming the UK will have voted to Remain in June), then there is another intriguing possibility that could surprise us. Namely that an emboldened pro-EU lobby in Britain could again raise the point about the UK participating more fully in the EU through the Euro, Schengen and all.
Indeed, the pro-EU lobby has had a constant theme for the past 40 years, namely that Britain is forever late to EU affairs but gets dragged along in the end by circumstance. “If only we were fully engaged and fully European” runs their argument, “things would be very different”.
In the context of the euro, the clearest exposition of this view came from pro-EU commentator Will Hutton in June 2013. In an article for The Guardian, entitled “If only Britain had joined the euro”, Hutton makes the astonishing claim that the Britain’s economy would have fared much better before, during and since the financial crisis than the non-euro “economic doomsday machine” Britain allegedly created for itself through not joining. A year before in 2012, on the 20th anniversary of ‘White Wednesday’, Hutton was also predicting that:
“Before 2030 Britain will be applying to join the euro — and thus beginning a catch-up with a Europe which by then will be much more prosperous than us, looted by our feckless elite and their Eurosceptic apologists. Watch and wait.”
Hutton is not alone in believing this. In 2014, Lord Heseltine predicted that:
“One day Britain will join the euro.”
And as recently as December 2014, Lord Mandelson was refusing to give up on Britain joining the euro, suggesting that getting rid of the pound and joining the Euro may be seen as “attractive” in years to come. He also noted that although membership of the Euro was not on the British agenda now, “that might change” and the “Eurozone might re-emerge”.
The thing these three people have in common is they are unelected and can say what other Remainers are probably thinking but dare not say in the current climate. So with the backing of Westminster (especially after a Remain vote in 2016, apparently confirming that the British will never vote to leave), it is imaginable that in the coming years, a gradual softening-up exercise could be undertaken and the euro again resurrected as the logical next step to our EU membership. But don’t expect David Cameron’s flimsy alleged opt-out from ‘Ever closer union’ to help — the opt-out that Cameron himself stopped talking about within days of announcing it (which itself tells you something).
While clearly a possibility, in my view this euro scenario is probably less likely than that of a second- or third-tier Britain being dragged along in the EU, complaining all the way, and the whole ‘Europe issue’ continuing to hang around UK politics like a bad smell. However, what we can say with confidence is that the ongoing euro disaster will continue driving young people to the UK from across the Mediterranean countries. The euro crisis will not be going away any time soon because it is a fundamentally flawed construct. It will just continue to go through seriously bad periods broken by moments of relative calm (as we are in now). But the peripheral countries have little way out of this and will struggle to genuinely recover. That will keep pushing people to the UK.
But whatever happens over all, June 23rd provides us with a clear opportunity for an orderly exit from EU membership, initially to an EEA position. And with it, the opportunity to recast Europe in a more liberal, democratic, and market-based way.
In practical terms, this may be the only opportunity we are ever likely to get, short of an almighty bust-up in future led by unpleasant and illiberal nationalism. No one wants that.