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Some thoughts on sovereignty, and on ‘The Day After’

We are inextricably part of Europe.
[No one] will ever be able to take us ‘out of Europe’,
for Europe is where we are and where we have always been.’

These words were pronounced by one of the UK’s most prominent PMs, Margaret Thatcher, on 16 April 1975. This was 2 years after the UK joined the EC: Britain consulted its population by referendum, as a fully sovereign country, seeking voters’ approval for what was a good deal.

Brexit CapitalIn the 1970s when the UK joined the European Community, it was struggling economically Today, after 43 years of belonging to Europe, Britain has a dynamic economy and enjoys nearly full employment,and consults its population again, about the same issue, and again, as a fully sovereign country. The mere fact that this country is able to hold this referendum is a blatant demonstration of British sovereignty. National sovereignty is not incompatible with belonging to Europe. Any political grouping claiming in its acronym that the UK would not be an ‘independent’ country is talking nonsense. The UK expresses its sovereignty in many ways: through its international connections, through its defence, as well as within Europe, where it is in a position to encourage or to block joint decisions.

What does the UK mean for Europe? Some argue that there is incompatibility between the UK and the EU. I would argue that there is complementarity between the UK and the EU. And that each one needs the other.

Debates have focused too narrowly on benefits, from the UK’s point of view, of remaining or leaving. But there is far more at stake in the referendum. What is at stake is the Europe of tomorrow. What is at stake, is peace, democracy, and our common values. 46 million British voters will take a decision that will affect not only their country, but more than 500 million Europeans.

The British decision will occur at the worst possible time, in a context of rapid global geopolitical and technological change, affected by increased economic and financial uncertainty, rising social inequalities, an erosion of middle classes in developed economies, when we are confronted with the need to improve international cooperations in crucial areas such as currency stability, trade relations between blocs, fiscal rules, climate change, transition towards non-fossil energy sources, finance, migrations, the relative decline of Western economies, the shift of economic power towards the Asia-Pacific area. This is a unique combination of substantial challenges.

If you add to this mix the rise of anti-European nationalists, subsidised by Russia’s President Putin, and an arc of instability on Europe’s Eastern and Southern borders, stretching from Murmansk to Morocco… We are dancing on a vulcano. We are wasting time with issues of the past. The world out there is changing rapidly and is not waiting for us.

Britain has brought a lot to the European Union not just by being a net contributor to the modest EU budget. Britain has been a force for extending the Single Market, and for striking free trade agreements between the EU and other regions of the world. Britain encouraged the push for enlargement to the East and contributed to the democratic transition of these countries after the demise of soviet communism. The EU has been a springboard for the UK to promote important values which are as much British as European: parliamentary democracy; the rule of law; open markets. (Some of my fellow country citizens would even argue that the EU has become ‘too British’…’, that ‘too much English is spoken in Brussels!’) As Barack Obama put it: ‘The European Union does not moderate British influence – it magnifies it.’ In other words the UK has more impact and sovereignty as one of the three most important member states than it would on its own.

An EU without Britain would be likely to drift in a more protectionist direction. It would be a much smaller player in global affairs. It would lose one of the two countries that count in terms of defence policy. It would lose a positive force for liberalism. There is a serious risk that the European motto United in Diversity becomes Disunited in Adversity. Is this what we want at Britain’s doorstep? A fragmented mosaic of little nation-states which could so easily be bullied by Russia? Instead of having the EU as a soft power using its economic clout to put sanctions on Russia for aggressing Ukraine?

In the economic domain we have what Mario Monti calls a two-belief Europe: a group of European countries geared towards the market; and another group geared towards the consolidation of the euro area. Those believing in the market; and those believing in currency integration. Market, money. This is not incompatible: the volume of everyday transactions in euro at the City is higher than in any other international financial centre. I would daresay that the UK has the euro not as a single, but as a common currency, that de facto the euro is the second currency of the UK. This shows the extent to which we are interdependent. The challenge is to bring closer together those who believe in the market and those who believe in the currency project.

The European project, despite its shortcomings, remains the most advanced example of an economic community of countries. And it is regarded as a model in many parts of the world involved themselves in a process of regional integration. It is also envied all around the Globe by people striving for peace and democracy. Admittedly it is a ‘work in progress’ with many imperfections, but this is the best shelter that Europeans have, at a time when there is a multiplication of external and internal threats.

Who would have grounds to rejoice if, the Day After the referendum, the UK opted for a Brexit?

  • A viscerally anti-European media mogul.
  • A few sorcerer’s apprentices gambling on their country’s future to gain a personal political advantage.
  • Unscrupulous populists.
  • And Putin, who subsidises extremist parties across Europe to exacerbate its divisions.

If, however, the UK opted to remain a member of the European Union, this choice would send an unequivocal message to all the populists and new extreme-right parties across Europe - from France to Poland, from Germany to Sweden, from Hungary to the Netherlands, from Austria to Belgium – that despite disappointment about the way the Union works, and despite the UK’s relentlessly Europhobic press, even in the most Eurosceptic member state of the Union, there is no majority to abandon the acquis of the last six decades, which has become a matter of course for two generations.

One last word:

European integration is far from perfect, but it has been the indispensable cement between a huge diversity of nations and cultures which have been able to live in peace for six decades. If the gap between Europe and its citizens continues to be exacerbated by populists whose ultimate aim is the disintegration of Europe, our democracies will be threatened in their core. We take it for granted since 1945 that the ‘Never again’ of post-War times will always apply to Europe, that there will never be a war again in Europe. If the EU was disappearing tomorrow, what certainty would we have that a war between Europeans, between France and Germany, would still be unthinkable? Who would have imagined in the former Yugoslavian Federation of 1987-88, that its populations would endure ten years of civil wars, massacres and dreadful atrocities, on European soil, for absolutely nothing?

Let us not play with fire. We are in the same boat: let us not saw the boat into two!

Jean-Marc Trouille is Jean Monnet Chair
in European Economic Integration
at Bradford University School of Management, UK.

This is the text of a speech given at a public debate
held on 7 June in Ilkley.



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