Forty years after Britain joined the EU and four decades of fitful and often fractious partnership with former foes later, the case for continued membership should be stronger than ever. It isn’t and not just because of an overwhelmingly toxic media owned by offshore, “tax-efficient” barons. The blatant need for reforming the eurozone, counter-acting depression and dealing with structural imbalances – yes, including Germany’s excessive current account surplus – has made it harder to argue the case while that crisis lasts. But the political as well as the economic case remains strong.
First, the UK, even as a semi-detached member state prone to opt-outs, gains more economic and diplomatic clout by being part of the EU. It’s true that economic power is shifting eastwards and that UK exports are increasingly heading towards the BRICs/VIPERs but: these countries want to trade with Europe, not a self-deluding stand-alone Britain; any decline in trade is recession-driven and not necessarily permanent; and the EU is still the world’s biggest market. If British exports to developing markets are less than those of Germany, that’s because of a seriously imbalanced, under-nurtured, short-termist economy. “Brussels” is not the root of homemade problems. As a country dedicated to free trade, enshrined in the single market the Brits helped create and develop, we should be combining with Berlin and other capitals to complete that market and foster post-Doha trade deals around the globe.
But the political gains of membership are even more important: as Greater Switzerland, the goal of Europhobes, the UK might retain nuclear weapons and, temporarily, a permanent UN security council seat but its influence would decline rapidly. It would be an extraordinary own goal. The first port of call for Obama and his successor as well as the new Chinese leadership would be Berlin or Brussels.
Future British governments would be well-advised to nurture soft power goals with Germany rather more than military hardware deals with the French. The greatest crisis in Franco-German relations in half a century offers huge opportunities for a German-UK campaign to reshape the EU economically and diplomatically.
Second, and related, Berlin and London can spearhead sorely-needed reforms within the EU. Germany, as a federal country, and the UK, as semi-federal these days, should combine (with the Netherlands and others) to promote systematic subsidiarity: the meaningful devolution of powers from the central to national, regional or local levels. The eurozone crisis has effectively killed the one-size-fits-all notion or regulatory over-zeal – and the recent deal on banking union indicates how a more flexible power-sharing between core and periphery can work. In return, Britain should abandon self-defeating policies such as the mass opt-out from the so-called JHA measures or wholesale dropping of the working time directive.
Labour and the SPD should, meanwhile, push for direct elections (and dismissal) of the European Commission president and, ultimately, all EC members. It’s not going to happen overnight but there should be moves to making umbrella bodies such as the PES genuinely pan-European social democrat groups. They could then propose their own candidates for top EU positions. Equally, they should promote genuine co-decision-making by national parliaments – however reluctant MPs, for instance, are to seize already extant opportunities judging by recent evidence.
At the Centre for British Influence through Europe (formerly Nucleus) we believe that it is only by adopting such an outward-looking, progressive – and inclusive - policy towards the EU that this country will enjoy prosperity and power.
(This article first appeared at Progress Online, the news/commentary site of the New Labour pressure group)