Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796)
It was a curious coincidence (or was it?) that on the same day that David Cameron dressed up as success what was clearly failure, the USA announced a quadrupling of its defence spending in Europe. It’s a reminder that Europe remains occupied, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The price of Europe’s defence is paid in other ways, such as submission to TTIP.
An independent Europe would require a European Union that worked, one that allowed much more to be done locally and regionally, while focusing on what actually needs doing at European level. The fear that a European army could be used against dissenting countries within the EU is real enough. The rhetoric coming from Brussels about enforcing (western) ‘European values’ on eastern Member States – that have democratically made different choices – chillingly demonstrates that. But there are other reasons why the EU has no comprehensive common security policy. Public debate contrasts two arenas of independence. If the UK leaves the EU, as UKIP wish, should Scotland leave the UK, as the SNP wish? What of the third arena, the independence of Europe as a whole, independence against the world? Is it too big an ask? Or are we just not seeing the wood for the trees?
We’ve long argued in favour of a ‘third option’ for Europe. Our version is one that rejects unhelpful centralism, whether it comes from the EU or from its Member States. That this requires fundamental reform of the current institutions is a given. What the deal negotiated by Cameron does is demonstrate the difficulty of any reform happening at all. The diplomacy, designed to retain the UK’s place in Europe, is likely to have had the opposite effect, inviting its critics to present the EU as unreformable. The ‘concessions’ are cosmetic, as they were intended to be. No powers will be returned to the UK. Few were seriously requested in the first place.
It took the London regime 950 years to become as inflexible as the EU has become in just 60. The only thing that could correct that would be a directly elected European government. One with a popular mandate to break the costly inertia of government-by-treaty and force through reform of all the EU institutions. Eurosceptics would hate that, because their answer to claims that the EU is undemocratic is to abolish it. Democratising it is the other answer, the one that no-one must offer.
If Cameron has dealt the eurosceptics a winning hand it’s a pity. The EU, by opening an umbrella across nation-state rivalries, has created an irreplaceable opportunity for small nations and historic regions otherwise silenced by tub-thumping jingoism. Those down the west side of Britain can now choose to organise themselves as part of the Atlantic arc. Those down the east side can see themselves as part of the North Sea rim, or a cross-Channel grouping. Ancient enemies can be viewed at last as neighbours, friends and allies. The Cornish and the Bretons can no longer be ordered by London and Paris to hate each other. It’s such an advance that it could be outweighed only by something monumentally stupid emanating from Brussels. No doubt that can be arranged.
There’s the problem with the ‘Leave’ campaign. Brussels loses, but who then gains? Wessex does not, and cannot, benefit from a stronger UK. The UK, like England, has proven in practice to be mostly a metaphor for London financial interests. In politics, it’s an expensive luxury to have two opponents at once. A choice of Brussels over London is therefore a logical one to make if London is standing in the way of regional devolution and Brussels is not. It’s also difficult to see how a Europe of the regions could be constituted without a Europe to, at the very least, agree collective security against external threats.
Reality has fallen short of aspiration not because Europe has failed the regions but because the nation-states have failed both the regions and Europe. Despite some promising signs such as the Committee of the Regions established under the Maastricht Treaty, the EU remains eternally the creature of its Member States. It’s been powerless to prevent the abolition of France’s historic regions or in England the substitution of unwanted elected mayors for real devolution. Its only contribution to the debate over independence for Catalonia or Scotland has been to look for problems. The EU needs friends with a broader vision. It hasn’t a clue how to find them.
Cameron’s negotiations are but a small part of the big European picture. It’s easy to denounce them as a distraction when Europe is grappling with the migrant crisis but the two issues are intimately connected. With migrant-related crime reported (inaccurately, but influentially) to be running unchecked in Germany, the temptation for British voters to raise the drawbridge may prove irresistible. The very process of the referendum helps the ‘Leave’ cause. With the SNP’s amendment of a four-nation lock rejected, the voting unit is ‘the British people’, about whom we shall no doubt be hearing quite a lot. Among other things, the vote should tell us whether or not they still exist.
It could be the last opportunity to breathe life into British exceptionalism, the idea that there is ‘Europe’ and there is ‘Britain’ and the two are as different as chalk and cheese. Never mind that 40% of British DNA is shared with the French, evidence of a common past stretching back into prehistory. Never mind that English is a Germanic language, overlain with Latin, closely linked to Frisian and West Flemish. Never mind that the oldest secular work in Byelorussian is a 1580 version of the Cornish tale of Tristan and Isolde. Never mind that the EU’s chief negotiator, Donald Tusk, is a Kashubian with a surname that’s the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish for ‘German’ and a first name that’s decidedly Scottish. Never mind that Ireland isn’t going anywhere and will be a constant reminder that Europe exists to the west of Britain as well as to the south and east. Never mind that Europe is a web of cultural connections, while the UK is a forced accident of geography. Never mind. The UK can run to Washington and Beijing for a pat on the head.
As Norway’s ‘fax democracy’ shows, it won’t make a scrap of difference to how the rest of the EU makes decisions, nor to its power over the UK economy. British foreign policy for centuries was to maintain the balance of power in Europe as it built up an overseas empire. Divide, and conquer. That’s history now, in both respects, but the way the UK is debating disengagement from Europe and planning new forays into the wider world suggests that a great many folk have failed to notice.