I’ve not posted for a while, and I’m afraid it’s just that I’ve been taking a break from politics – travelling for pleasure, going out to the theatre and movies, sorting out some family issues, winning some poker tournaments. I’m sorry not to have won last May, but freedom has its charms too!
However, with the referendum apparently just months away, I thought it might be helpful to post some comments on that. It’s a pity, in my view, that the debate is focused so much on whether Mr Cameron’s frankly modest renegotiation package is successful or not. It’s always been obvious to anyone in politics that Mr Cameron had a 3-point plan:
- Offer the referendum as a way to bring UKIP leaners back and win the election
- Get some sort of token package of reform
- Declare victory and win the referendum
Older people remember all this – it’s exactly what Harold Wilson did in the 60s. You may think it’s cynical, though stage 1 certainly worked – if the Conservatives hadn’t offered the referendum, they’d have leaked a few percentage points to UKIP and we’d now have a different government. A good thing or a bad thing, it’s all history.
But quite soon, Mr Cameron will also be history – he’s retiring whether he wins or not. I wish him many happy years, but it would be ridiculous to decide the future of Britain on the basis of whether we approve of a retiring politician and his manoeuvres.
The fundamental issue is this – and it’s something which has struck me with increasing force in my present (animal welfare) job, which has taken me to 25 countries in the last few years. The world is increasingly divided into regional power blocs. Nearly every continent has one now, in different stages of development, each with preferential trade internally and an attempt to form a common front to defend their interests globally.
We do not have a choice of blocs – we can’t sensibly join NAFTA in North America or ASEAN in South East Asia or the African Union. We can be in the EU, or we can be on our own. And to be on our own in today’s world is a risky and frankly unusual decision. If we think we can win global arguments on our own, we are deluded; what will usually happen is that we will bob along in the slipstream of decisions made by others.
This is not to argue that the EU is a terrific example of good governance. It creaks. It’s not very transparent. It’s slow. It’s dominated by big business. But for this continent, it’s actually the only game in town.
That’s illustrated by the difficulty that the Leave campaign is having in identifying the alternative. Broadly speaking, there are two variants. We can join EFTA, like Norway, or we can refuse to join anything. If we join EFTA, we will have almost exactly the same rules as now – for instance, we will still have free movement of labour from throughout the EU. In EFTA, I don’t think we’d see a big exodus of business. The difference is merely that we will have less influence in deciding what those rules are, and certainly no veto. Or we can be entirely separate. But that means being outside the EU free trade area, subject to tariffs. In that case, we really would see the big companies moving out with a big loss of jobs. Their European offices are going to be more important than the British market if we force them to choose.
I’ve heard the comparison that the EU is like an awkward marriage – there comes a point where you feel that the marriage is just too much hassle, and you’d be happier with someone else. But we need to be clear that there isn’t anyone else: the alternative is splendid isolation. To pursue the analogy, we would be choosing to be lone bachelors in a world increasingly dominated by families.
I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think we realistically belong in the European area, and we should work to make the best of it instead of grumbling from the sidelines. But I’m not saying that because I’m interested in Mr Cameron’s package, or any other politician’s stance.
It simply seems to me that we are best off staying in partnership with our neighbours, whether it’s difficult or not. In the end, Europe is going to sink or swim together, and we cannot opt out of that reality – only from being part of the decisions that will decide whether it succeeds or not. Don’t vote for tactical reasons, to annoy Cameron or reward anyone else. Instead, vote for a coherent long-term future for Britain as part of the continent where we live.