Riga, Latvia. 8 November. Today in London it is Remembrance Sunday. On the closest Sunday to 11 November at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month Britain remembers its war dead, most of whom gave their lives defending Europe from tyranny. Yesterday here at the Riga Conference I engaged in a vaguely-heated exchange with senior figures, who I am duty bound not to name, over the fraught issue of Brexit. One argued that if Britain chose to leave the EU it would be reduced in the world and Europe to a status no better than Norway, Switzerland or “Lichtenstein”. What complete and utter insulting tosh. If that is to be the attitude of senior Europeans to the need for a new political settlement between Britain and the future real EU/Eurozone then I too will vote for Brexit.
This would be a shame because I have just about been convinced by sensible Europeans whom I hold in high regard, such as former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and former German defence minister Volker Ruhe, that an equitable ‘Europe’ is possible. Indeed, they are clear that the EU is not headed towards some form of European super-state which by definition would pose a threat to democracy and liberty in Europe. Moreover, they believe an equitable deal for Britain in the coming New EU is both necessary and desirable.
To get to this position I have come a long way since my 2010 call for Britain to leave the EU. Back then in the teeth of the Eurozone storm I simply could not see how the Euro could survive without further political integration, that Britain would ever join the single currency, and thus how Britain could continue to occupy the political space in the EU it now does. Indeed, I still need to be convinced that a new political settlement can be achieved and I will reserve my final judgement until then. My ‘red line’ is this; if such a deal means treaty change and EU reform to put the union as a whole on a new political footing then so be it. Suggesting that treaty change is impossible (which is simply a way of saying take it or leave it Britain) is putting the tactical cart before the strategic horse.
Furthermore, I am fully aware that a British departure from the EU WOULD damage Britain and indeed the EU at a time of great strategic uncertainty. Sitting here close to the Russian border only reinforces in my mind the need for strategic unity and solidarity. Moreover, the EU really does afford benefits; the single market affords Britain trading benefits, although Germany’s blocking of the Services Directive, and thus financial and banking services, is simply anti-British German protectionism. Free movement of labour is clearly as much in the British interest as the rest of Europe, even if the impact on lower-paid Britons has been hard.
Equally, I am firm in my belief that the one of the world’s top five economies and military powers would in time flourish outside an EU. The EU is too often a block on competitiveness and economic growth, too often a mechanism for strategic denial, and too often generates a Europe that punches beneath its weight in the world. And, to suggest that a Britain outside the EU would be isolated demonstrates a lack of understanding of both the British and politics. The soon-to-be gone Obama administration might want Britain to stay in the EU in the hope that the geopolitical Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership can be stood up and support the geopolitical Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, once outside the EU the US WOULD move to accommodate the British to ensure the new global stability architecture the US is creating is not floored by a little local difficulty in Europe.
However, there is also a contradiction in the Bildt/Ruhe position. Whilst the suggestion that there is no real appetite any longer for hard political union is to be welcomed, the deeper fiscal and banking integration needed to safeguard the single currency will inevitably lead to some form of ‘soft’ political union. Even soft political union begs the core European question: what is now the finalité of the European Project?
In that light what really concerns me is the intransigence of the French who seemed determined to force Britain out of the EU. France fears that a pragmatic Berlin might do a deal with London that in effect makes Britain an equal partner of Germany to France, and thus further undermines the already tattered Franco-German Axis. If that is the French beef they are right to be concerned. Indeed, it is entirely appropriate that Europe’s second strongest economy and leading military power SHOULD enjoy a relationship with Berlin that IS commensurate with the fact that Britain is a stronger power than France, and likely to remain so.
Therefore, if Paris wants to be in an EU led by a Germany in which it is very much the junior partner then go ahead, make my day. Go on being intransigent and go on insulting the British. If, on the other hand, Paris wants to maintain an implicit balance of power at the core of European power within the EU then it is in the French interest to keep Britain in the EU.
However, France cannot and must not expect Britain to be subordinated in perpetuity to the Franco-German Axis which is what Paris appears to expect today. Certainly, France can forget the hope that Britain will join France in Europe’s pre-eminent strategic military partnership if France actively blocks a new political settlement.
This week David Cameron will finally publish his ‘demands’ for reform of the EU. Don’t hold yer breath. That said, his ‘resolve’, as much as it exists, is being strengthened by the insertion of steel into places where the sun don’t shine by Chancellor Osborne and others. Just today Cameron warned that he could change his pro-EU position if his demands fall on “deaf ears” in the EU.
The simple truth is that not only is the EU changing, but so is the world around it. Therefore, it is vital that the EU adapts to face the many challenges and threats Europe faces. The irony is that of all the dangers the EU faces the Brexit issue is the easiest to fix if only leaders pulled their collective finger out and fashioned a new political settlement. That at the very least would mean an end to this nonsense about nothing being possible due to the impossibility of treaty change. What utter bollocks!
My fear is that if such intransigence persists in the face of what are for the most part legitimate British concerns about governance and sovereignty in the EU then many of my compatriots will respond to the French “F.U. UK”, with a resounding “F.U. EU”. Ultimately, it would not be the British or the French or the Germans who would be the biggest losers of a hostile Brexit…it would be the good people here in Latvia and elsewhere in the Baltic States. In such a Europe there would be only one winner of such a split and he sits not to my west, but not too far to my east.
And one final thing; to all those who derided my 2010 warning that Britain was headed towards Brexit…I told you so!