A Darwinian political struggle is happening behind the scenes in the EU, but if UK were to leave the EU it would put its unity at risk, plunge parliament into legislative chaos and ‘unfriend’ our important friends in Europe, writes William Horsley.
William Horsley is an independent journalist and broadcaster. He reported for the BBC as Germany Correspondent and then as European Affairs Correspondent from 1991 to 2007.
The European Union claims to be a rules-based system that ensures a level playing-field for dealings among fractious and once intensely warlike nations. But behind the scenes a Darwinian political struggle takes place all the time among those nations to assert rival national interests in the decisions taken through the Union’s laws, policies and actions.
The urge of many British people to vote Leave in the coming referendum is fuelled by a sense that the UK tends overall to be a loser in this continental-scale struggle for advantage. A tide of resentment has been whipped up over the substantial numbers of migrants who have come to Britain during years when its economy has needed more workers.
But the sensible answer is not to tear up the whole set of interlocking, two-way ties with our European neighbours on which our own well-being and life opportunities heavily depend. A quick look at the unfolding story of the EU shows that, despite bruising setbacks and frustrations, the UK has used its EU membership hugely to its own as well as Europe’s advantage.
The present reality is that the EU is a forum where many key decisions are taken affecting the UK’s domestic as well as foreign policy interests. Britain ’s influential voice as an EU insider helps to secure favourable terms for its citizens to travel, work, live secure and healthy lives, and protect themselves from external dangers, all by mutual consent with our whole neighbourhood.
If future British prime ministers were forced to give up their place in the European Council, at the summits of the 28 EU heads of government, that could prove to be as damaging to UK interests as it would be to lose the UK’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The idea of transforming the European Communities into a European Union with more extensive powers for common European institutions emerged 25 years ago in the Maastricht Treaty in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It put Britain on the back foot. The mantra of Helmut Kohl, the first Chancellor of re-united Germany, was that the unification of the two parts of Germany and the political unification of Europe were ‘two sides of the same coin’, and that European integration was essential to prevent future wars in Europe.
That integrationist agenda was broadly enshrined in successive EU treaties after Maastricht. But Britain was still able to uphold its core interests and demands, including the primacy of NATO in European defence, the opening up of the EU to former communist states in eastern Europe, and the UK’s right to stay outside the Schengen border-free travel and euro currency areas.
The ‘Blair interlude’ showed that Britain could also lead in Europe. For some years after Tony Blair became UK prime minister in 1997 with a large majority and a pro-European and pro-reform agenda, the momentum was with him. Britain was Europe’s standard-bearer in the showdown with Serbia over Kosovo.
In 2004, EU leaders backed the UK’s choice of Jose Manuel Barroso as president of the European Commission over a joint Franco-German candidate, the federalist-minded Belgian Guy Verhofstadt. The rest of Europe acknowledged the UK’s extraordinary diplomatic clout again in 2009, by handing the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to a Briton, Catherine Ashton.
Several times in the past quarter century the major powers within the expanding European Union have been dangerously at odds over geopolitical rivalries, as when Blair’s Britain defied loud French and German warnings to join the US-led invasion of Iraq, and when Gerhard Schroeder’s Germany boosted Russia’s not-so-friendly efforts to increase Europe’s dependency on its energy supplies by ramming through the Nordstream gas pipeline which bypasses traditional transit countries like Poland. Europe’s timid response to Russia’s frequent bullying of its neighbours encouraged Moscow to launch new military interventions, starting in Georgia in 2008.
Without the safety net of the European Union those tensions could have had far worse consequences. Today Russia’s destructive and destabilising actions in Ukraine are at least constrained by the EU’s unity in maintaining sanctions against Moscow.
Meanwhile the rise of Islamist terrorism across Europe has shown the existential importance to Britain of close cooperation with our nearest neighbours. A UK government that long resisted any EU meddling in matters of law and order recently fought hard to maintain its place in the European arrest warrant system as a vital aid to combating cross-border crime and terrorism.
As for the basic issue of the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’, the imminent In/Out referendum gives British voters the chance to decide for themselves on this country’s membership of the Union which was first promised and then denied to them after the rejection by French and Dutch voters in 2005 of the EU’s ill-fated Constitutional Treaty – the one which was effectively re-named and later came into force as the Lisbon Treaty.
The Darwinian struggle for life says that it is a mistake to turn your back on a safe habitat and go into unknown territory. To leave the EU would put the unity of the United Kingdom at risk, plunge parliament into legislative chaos and ‘unfriend’ our important friends in Europe. My compatriots should recognise and make best use of the mutual assurance and opportunities that come from continued membership. To vote Leave would only lead to a fool’s paradise.