Alphen, Netherlands. 3 February. This is not an easy blog to write but written it must be. Indeed, my decision may well surprise some. In fact, it has come as somewhat of a surprise to me. However, after much careful consideration and a year of travelling and talking with friends and colleagues across Europe I have decided I will not be voting for Brexit.
It has nothing to do with the political chicanery of yesterday. Donald Tusk’s long letter to members of the European Council is blandly entitled: “a new settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union”. Read it and three things immediately become apparent. First, there will be no reform of the EU per se under the plan. Second, with a few window dressing minor adjustments most of the so-called ‘new’ arrangements actually exist under existing treaty provisions. Third, the agreement confirms that Britain will not at any point be part of EU structures of which it is already not a part, most notably the Euro, Schengen, and ever closer political union. In other words, this agreement is a least possible of offer agreement to get a line of least resistance politician out of a domestic political corner entirely of his own making. Not only has David Cameron missed a very real opportunity to show real leadership and push a real EU reform agenda, history will now judge him as one of Britain’s lesser prime ministers.
There will certainly be days when I will regret this decision as there is much about the EU I really do not like at all, most notably the threat to democracy posed by Brussels and ever closer union. However, while I remain a confirmed EU-sceptic I am not nor have I ever been a Euro-sceptic. Indeed, I have long been firm in my belief that it is vital Europeans work closely together in a dangerous world that is getting more dangerous by the day. Nor am I particularly bothered by some of the issues that excite many of the ‘outers’. For example, I see freedom of movement within the EU migration as one of the very freedoms for which Britain fought the Soviets during the Cold War.
As a strategist, analyst and historian, some say a good one, I simply believe that this is not the moment for Britain to leave the EU. Moreover, even though I am only an individual British and EU citizen, which means I count for very little in today’s EU, I still believe that all of us must at times show leadership in the interest not only of my country, but of the community of which it is a part – be it within the EU or without.
The simple truth is that I am confronted by a complex set of interacting realities from which no clear course of action is apparent, in a strategic environment which is markedly more dangerous than back in 2010 when I called for Britain to leave the EU. At such moments the good strategist weighs up the factors, considers them over the medium to longer-term, and then relies on strategic judgement to reach a decision.
The critical strategic judgements supporting my decision are based on the following factors:
The integrity of the United Kingdom: It is clear that the UK remains a fragile political edifice in the wake of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. If England voted to leave the EU on what now looks likely to be a 23 June Brexit referendum and Scotland did not, the separatists in the Scottish Nationalist Party would be again call for Scottish independence. For those of us who believe it vital the UK endure for both strategic and political reasons the SNP regime in Edinburgh now empowered with full devolution must be given both time and opportunity to fail politically.
The shifting balance of power within Europe: In December 2013 the Centre for Economic and Business Research suggested that by 2030 Britain could emerge as Europe’s strongest economic power. Britain is already on track to regain its position as Europe’s strongest and most capable military power. The CEBR position may well be over-stated and maybe ever-so-slightly hubristic. However, it is clear that fears of German hegemony have been over-stated. Germany’s poor leadership of Europe’s now many crises and the eclipsing of Chancellor Merkel’s political star, allied to the inevitable decline of an unreformable France that simply wants more ‘Europe’ to save itself from itself, clearly point to a shift of power within the EU. If correct the critical future power relationship within the EU will be between London and Berlin.
Pressure for EU reform will grow: In his September 2015 “State of the Union” address Jean-Claude Juncker said that in 2017 the EU will begin the long-process towards a new treaty. Juncker clearly thinks a crisis hit EU will automatically lead to Europeans wanting for more ‘Europe’ and thus less democracy. In fact, a new treaty is more likely lead to a balancing of powers within the EU between common and inter-governmental structures in favour of the latter. The irony for the British is that whether they vote for or against Brexit Britain will probably end up in the same political place.
The end of political union: The dream of euro-federalists such as Juncker have been dealt a real blow by the Eurozone, Russia, and migration crises. His efforts to find ‘common’ solutions, i.e. more power for Brussels, have repeatedly founded on two simple facts of European life: a) there is growing EU-scepticism across Europe; and b) a majority of Europeans and their leaders still remain firmly wedded to their nation-states. There are now clearly limits to just how much power Europe’s states are willing to hand over to Brussels.
The Eurozone v non-Eurozone: When I called for Britain to leave the EU back in 2010 it was because I believed at the time that the only way to save the Euro was for the Eurozone to deepen economic, political and fiscal union. Those outside the Eurozone I feared would be forced to pay without having any say in which the EU and the Eurozone were effectively one and the same. In fact, efforts to deepen the Eurozone have proven to be extremely complex and difficult causing much resentment amongst the taxpayers of the six western European states who in effect have to pay. Six years on and it is clear that the EU is dividing into a Eurozone and non-Eurozone bloc. Britain’s relative power if used properly (a big ‘if’ given the poor quality of Britain’s leaders) should ensure London emerges to lead the non-Eurozone bloc. Power far more than any empty language in a hollow agreement will afford the City of London the protections the British seek from the ‘ambitions’ of the Eurozone bloc.
Democracy, sovereignty & subsidiarity: The Dutch have a saying, “Europe where necessary, the states where possible”. English political culture has always rightly distrusted distant political power. Born of the likes of Burke, Locke and Mill the English (and dare I say Scottish – Hume &Smith?) have traditionally mistrusted continental Colbertian grands dessins which always afford excessive power to distant executives at the expense of local legislatures. In alliance with partners Britain’s power and influence could help protect all Europeans from the unwarranted ambitions of ‘we know best’ politicised Eurocrats, euro-judges, and officials at the European Central Bank.
Political distraction: The run-up to the September 2014 Scottish referendum effectively took Britain strategically off-line for two full years. Had the Scots voted to quit the UK London would still today be mired in squabbles about the minutiae of disengagement and independence that would still be distracting London from big strategy. These squabbles would also have created deep mistrust between the English and Scots that no amount of political blandishments could have hidden. If Britain votes for Brexit not only will London and Brussels also become mired in an extremely complex set of negotiations it will caused rancour between Britain and others at a time when Europeans must together face major crises.
Solidarity: The other day I was standing in the snow not far from the Russian border in Lithuania. I had already begun to shift my position on Brexit in the wake of the November 2015 Paris massacre and in the face of the challenges posed by Russia, Islamic State, and the migration crisis, none of which existed in 2010. Today, I simply think it inconceivable for Britain to be distracted or indeed to distract others from dealing with a set of challenges that could all too easily become existential. Indeed, in the final analysis my need to stand firmly with my Baltic and French friends, and indeed my Greek, Italian and other under pressure European friends, outweighs my concerns about the future governance of Europe and Britain’s place therein. My fear is that Brexit could critically undermine all-important strategic unity of effort and purpose and in turn damage NATO and wider transatlantic security relationship at a critical moment.
There is one final reason why I will not be voting for Brexit. Britain does not quit. Throughout Britain’s history London has never run away from a fight over who controls Europe. It is simply of too great importance to Britain. Phillip II of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Bill and Hitler were all seen off because England and then Britain stood firm. Therefore, precisely because Europeans today face serious dangers from without Europe and serious question within Europe I believe it vital Britain stand firm and stand tall to deal with them. As Britain has always done and I hope always will.
To sum up, I am rejecting Brexit precisely because Europe is in crisis. The decision I have made is a big one and a part of me really dislikes the decision I have made. Moreover, I have absolutely no doubt that once over the stress of break-up my old, great country possessed of the world’s fifth biggest economy, and a top five military, could and would flourish. Equally, I am also fully aware that I am gambling on Britain’s future. It may well be that the moment the British people vote to remain in the EU Brussels will seek to tear up the agreement and behave as if nothing had happened to challenge their cherished goal of a European super-state. However, I am also willing to bet for all the reasons I have outlined above that is not going to happen.
What really matters is that my important decision is a decision arrived at freely by a free-born Englishman. Henceforth, I will fight in all and any way I can to ensure the EU is properly reformed so that my birth right is protected. No-one has got to me, I have not lost my political nerve, nor am I seeking to assuage political masters as I have none, nor do I seek to gain opportunistically from this decision. However, on balance (and it is on balance) I am now of the opinion that if Britain really wants to reform the EU it must stay within it and fight for it.