Britain and the EU: An ever-closer union?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The question of Britain in Europe has been a running sore in British public life for too long, and as such has proved a constant irritant on both sides of the Channel. It needs to be settled, writes Malcolm Rifkind.

Malcolm Rifkind is a British Conservative MP and a former foreign secretary.

The European Union is facing one of the greatest challenges in its history. On the one hand, Berlin, Brussels and the bond markets demand austerity and integration. On the other, citizens resist not just the solutions themselves, but also what they perceive to be the undemocratic manner in which these solutions are imposed.

The inevitable outcome of this paralysis has been a surge in Euroscepticism across the continent. Many in the eurozone’s debtor countries resent what they regard to be the punitive terms of the troika’s rescue packages. Many in creditor countries resent being resented for the solidarity they have shown, and fear future liabilities.

With this background, it is perhaps to be expected that many Britons are even less convinced than they once might have been that EU membership is a boon rather than a bane to their country’s prospects. As a result, two complementary debates are being conducted: that of the future of Britain’s membership of the European Union; and that of the future direction of the European Union more widely – regardless of whether or not the United Kingdom has a part to play.

The question of Britain in Europe has been a running sore in British public life for too long, and as such has proved a constant irritant on both sides of the Channel. It needs to be settled. Two points should be borne in mind when considering the European debate here. First, the Conservative Party – which took Britain into the EEC in 1973 – is not nor has ever been inherently or implacably hostile to the European project. Second, the Prime Minister’s call for a referendum was not simply the product of the internal politics of the Tory party. It was an acknowledgement of the depth of Eurosceptic feeling amongst the British people.

Like the prime minister, I have argued and continue to believe that Britain should remain in the European Union. It is overwhelmingly in Britain’s interest, as the main champion of free trade and open markets, to remain a full participant in the biggest single market in the world, with the ability to shape the rules consistent with our own interests through a process of negotiation and compromise.

We also have an overwhelming interest in peace, stability and security in the continent of which we are part and in which both world wars of the last century began. While NATO continues to be the main guarantor of the security of European nations, including ourselves, from external threat; it is the European Union which has been the most important means of creating, ensuring and extending friendship, co-operation, democracy and the rule of law within Europe.

These achievements are as important to Britain as to other European nations. But they are not irreversible, and cannot be taken for granted. The harm that would be done both to Britain and to the rest of Europe by the United Kingdom walking out of the EU should not be underestimated. It would damage the credibility and authority of Europe in the wider world. It would remove one of the three largest member states from the deliberations of the EU, leaving France and Germany to dominate its membership to the consternation of the smaller members. It would be the most serious setback for the stability and security that the peoples of Western Europe have enjoyed since 1945.

Of course our membership of the European Union has constrained our sovereignty on issues covered by the single market, on global trade policy and in environmental negotiations. But Britain has always been pragmatic about constraining or sharing our sovereignty when we have been convinced that there are solid benefits for our security, prosperity or quality of life which will be achieved as a result. Margaret Thatcher, who was far more pragmatic than she is given credit for, understood perfectly well the benefits of sharing sovereignty at the European level in certain circumstances.

The Single European Act of 1986 was a step forward for European integration and a triumph for the advancement of the British national interest. It struck a blow against protectionism across the Community and after the Eastern enlargement, across the continent. British prestige and influence was enhanced through its association with the success of the project.

The issue in Britain is not about the need or desirability of conceding sovereignty in certain circumstances, but our insistence that this should only be done when there are demonstrable, substantial benefits in doing so. Some Eurosceptics complain that three-quarters of our laws are decided in Brussels. It is good rhetoric, but such complaints are wrong. The overwhelming majority of European laws amount to around 10% of UK primary legislation and are little more than the detailed, technical regulations required to establish common standards in many different sectors of our economy and the single market, in particular. They do not constitute a threat to our democracy, and go largely unnoticed by those who do not work in the sectors concerned. Nor can a single regulatory system be regarded as more burdensome than the thicket of twenty-seven different national regulatory systems it has been designed to replace.

However, sovereignty transferred or reduced for doctrinal, aspirational or political reasons is rarely justified because it can only be done at the expense of self-government and democratic accountability. That is why the strains are now so great, and are growing. Discord is being sown across the eurozone because voters in Greece, Italy, Spain and even in France are coming to the realisation that while they can vote for a change of government, fundamental issues on tax and spending are increasingly being determined at the supranational level. It was in the interests of our democracy and self-government, not because of nationalism that Britain decided not to join the euro.

So much for the present. What of the future for Britain and for Europe?

It has become fashionable for people to declare the imminent arrival of a “two-speed Europe.” There are two fundamental flaws with this analysis. Firstly, the idea that all EU members have, until now, been travelling at the same speed towards the same destination is at variance with reality. It is demonstrably untrue. The EU is not just internally divided by the eurozone. There are Schengen and non-Schengen states. Most member states are in NATO, 4 are neutral and are outside. There are those, not just Britain, who have opt-outs or special provision in various areas of EU competence. And there are those who prefer decisions using Community institutions while others, like France, often insist on intergovernmentalism.

The sheer complexity of today’s European Union of 27 – going on 28 – members must be acknowledged, and a more flexible approach to European governance developed accordingly. Indeed, the very notion of ‘speeds’ of European integration is past its sell-by date. It carries the assumption that although countries may be moving at different speeds, they all expect eventually to reach the same destination. This is not the case. There is not, and is unlikely ever to be, political consent in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and, perhaps, some other states for a federal or confederal European Union with some form of European government. Opinion amongst the political class in Germany, France and Benelux does not yet demand such a level of political and economic integration. So it is not a European Union moving to the same destination but by different speeds that we have now or are likely to have in future. Rather we have an EU with different tiers of membership reflecting the political and economic realities of individual member states.

This should neither sadden nor depress any reasonable person. Given the unique historical objective of the European Union project which will, ultimately, involve over 30 European states with their own histories, languages, economic challenges and special circumstances; such a diverse European Union is both inevitable and welcome. Only conquest can aspire to impose uniformity. Any union based on the consent of peoples, whether as individual citizens or as separate nations, must accept a high degree of diversity as not only inevitable but also as desirable.

My core message is that these factors also, as it happens, provide a credible and attractive basis for reconciling British moderate Euroscepticism with an evolving European Union in a manner that will enable us to retain our membership of the European Union over the years to come. If British exceptionalism could only be accommodated by all other EU member states abandoning their interests and agreeing to the dismantlement of an otherwise uniform European Union, then the British prime minister’s proposed negotiation would be doomed to failure. But an EU with substantial diversity and with more than one tier of membership already exists and will continue for generations to come regardless of any British requirements.

There are those who are willing for Britain to remain in the EU but assert that our membership must be restricted to trade and the single market. It is inconceivable that that would be conceded by other member states. It would make our membership of the EU hollow in the extreme. But in any event what do such advocates actually mean when they wish to restrict our membership to the single market. They must know that for the single market to work requires both Qualified Majority voting and the supranational jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. I was Margaret Thatcher’s Europe minister for three years. She was well aware of that when she signed the Single European Act.

Where the UK leads flexible solutions can emerge. The need for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy has always been a top British priority. Indeed, an historic deal was done, at long last, earlier this year to reform it. The deal was welcomed by Scottish and English fishery industry spokesmen. We will now have regional control of fisheries management, and a ban on the discarding of fish at sea. We already have a full opt-out on the euro. We are not part of Schengen on uncontrolled borders and we are not under any pressure to reverse that. Our budget rebate, negotiated by Thatcher at Fontainebleau, continues to operate and has saved the United Kingdom billions of pounds over the years. We have opt-outs on Justice and Home Affairs measures. There are debates about whether it will be in our interest to exercise all these measures such as the European Arrest Warrant but these are decisions we will take for ourselves.

So Britain already has a conditional membership of the European Union. What is needed, not just for the UK but for the EU as a whole, is a new system of reciprocal rights in regard to any future proposals for further harmonisation. Instead of such proposals being divisive and controversial, member states that wish to adopt them should have a right to do so. But, equally, those who do not wish to adopt them would have a similar right. Britain, and like-minded states, could not prevent those who have a genuine commitment to further integration from going ahead. But nor could the federalists impose their view on the rest.

The purists will be appalled and proclaim that this would create a Europe ‘a la carte’; but the reality is that the EU already has different levels of membership. An EU that relishes diversity is much more likely to survive and prosper than one which seeks to impose a rigid uniformity regardless of national circumstances. It will be sensible, wherever possible, for Britain’s negotiating objectives to be concentrated in those areas where they can be conceded without other member states suffering damage to their own interests as a result which would be difficult for them to justify to their own Parliaments and public opinion.

It must also be highly desirable for the British government to seek, wherever possible, alliances with other member states when they are negotiating specific reforms. Some in Brussels fear that other countries might be encouraged to make similar reforms in their relationship with the EU if the United Kingdom succeeds. If that were to be the case, it would merely demonstrate the need for reform throughout the EU to reassure all the peoples of Europe, not just those in the UK, that their interests, concerns and aspirations are not threatened by European integration.

We should also remind ourselves – and the British public – that the European Union is not to blame for the great majority of our ills. The United Kingdom has legitimate concerns about the EU and the implications for our sovereignty, but the EU is not the reason for our appalling level of debt. It is not to blame for the low level of our exports to the developing world. Nor is it the reason we have a crisis of skills in our country.

The Treaty of Rome proclaims that the signatories are ‘Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. We, and our fellow Europeans, should never lose sight that the Treaty refers to ever closer union of the peoples, not the states of Europe.

Our commitment in the United Kingdom is entirely consistent with this sentiment. Although European integration could not have got off the ground without the post-war idealism of our continental colleagues, Britain’s focus on practical achievements rather than political vision has helped shape the project for the better. Long may it continue to do so.

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