Mrs May and her friends have had two years to articulate a policy on Britain’s future relationship with Europe. They cannot make up their minds as to what they want and are still chasing a “have your cake and eat it” fantasy. The other 27 EU members have made it clear that, once the UK leaves the EU, “cake” is no longer on the menu. As a “third country”, the best we can hope for in future are a few crumbs falling off the rich man’s table. We are either “in” or “out” of the club, and we have been told clearly, over and over again, that there is no way in which we can expect to be able to pick cherries. We cannot expect to access the many benefits of staying in Europe without meeting the reciprocal obligations to which members subscribe.
Even if May and Co refuse to accept this, the reality is that Britain, in spite of its claims to greatness and an illusion that Europe needs us more than we need them, is the junior party in the negotiations, now on the exit strategy and on the coming months on the new relationship. The government’s failure to set attainable goals further weakens our bargaining position. This is being further eroded by the gradual decay of the economy, triggered by the climate of uncertainty created by a shambolic in-fighting government and by an opposition that sits on the fence. It is now abundantly clear that Brussels will have the last say.
Even if EU patience may be running out, Britain would still be welcome to stay in the Union, but, if it does a Brexit, it cannot count on any special treatment in defining its future relationship with our European neighbours. As British citizens whose lives will be profoundly affected by the outcome of the negotiations, we must now wake up to this reality. We must face up to the facts and set aside fantasy and ideology. We now know that continued free trade with the EU and its other trading partners is a better option than following Liam Fox on his wild goose chase for elusive new deals; we have learnt that, while very high rates of immigration create integration problems, we depend heavily on other Europeans for essential work in the NHS, for picking fruit and for filling big gaps in our scientific and technical expertise; we have seen that the same politicians who called for Britain to reclaim sovereignty from Europe are doing their hypocritical best to exclude parliament – the cornerstone of British sovereignty – from having a meaningful say in shaping our future; and we have come to appreciate that the regulations that emerge from the EU have been made with full British consent and have generally benign effects on our health, safety, rights and the environment.
Now that, 2 years on, we know more about these realities, it’s time to ask ourselves the reasons for staying in Europe. Here are my top 5 answers!
Give young people what they want and deserve
The people whose lives will be most affected by the decision to leave or stay in the EU are the young. They voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe and deserve to carry a disproportionate weight in setting our future, especially because, more than any other age group, they best represent the 15 million people who were then too young to vote but are already being affected. Think what the referendum result would have been if the 5 million least affected over 75’s, who mostly voted “leave”, had been excluded!
Geography means that most future EU decisions will impact on us
We are an island nation but that does not mean that it is better to “go it alone”. Whether we like it or not, most future EU decisions, not just on trade but on defense and security, environmental policy, human and livestock disease control, food safety, cross border travel and so many other things that shape our daily lives, are bound to impact on us. It is better that we should continue to play a full part in making these decisions, than to become an increasingly isolated “rule-taker”.
The importance of shared values and scale
The processes of globalisation continue to accelerate in response to massive improvements in communications. These are creating new opportunities but also challenges and threats to our way of life. Small countries, operating alone, do not have the weight to shape these processes. Instead, they are most effectively addressed by groups of like-minded countries that subscribe to common values. The European institutions, while respecting national cultures, religions, languages and independence, defend democratic processes, the rule of jointly determined laws and respect for human rights. They also nurture the emergence of consensus amongst members on policies towards addressing new global challenges: the most recent case has been in relation to privacy of information). Consensus building may not always be easy, but when over 500 million people, living in 28 of the world’s richest countries, act and speak with one voice, they have to be taken seriously. If Britain opts out of the EU it will not only lose international weight but also damage EU credibility and erode its hugely important role in dispute resolution and the nurturing of peace amongst its recently warring members.
The advantages of economic efficiency
Through the creation of the Single Market and the Customs Union, the EU has built a remarkably efficient free trade system from which Britain benefits enormously. The government’s own figures show that leaving this system under any scenario will result in big damage to UK industrial and financial services sectors. The forecast economic damage will cut the fiscal resources that are so badly needed to respond to voters’ aspirations for better education, health services, caring and transport, and will hit already poor communities and families hardest. It must be the first time in recent history that the UK government has committed itself to self-harming economic policies simply because its Prime Minister boxed herself into an untenable position by drawing some red lines and is t5oo stubborn to erase them.
The EU is reformable
EU policies and procedures are not written in stone. There is a constant process of policy evolution, often spurred by emergent crises, for instance in the banking sector or in areas related to curbing terrorist or health threats. It seems certain that, even if progress may be slow, new policies on migration and the treatment of asylum seekers, on the respective roles of states and the private sector in public investment, and on creating a level playing field for social protection are bound to emerge quite soon. As one of the largest economies in the EU, Britain, if it remains a member, can become a main driver of what it sees as needed reforms.
The European Union and its many institutions may not be perfect. However, as young British people know, it has a performed a valuable role in enabling neighbouring countries with shared goals to jointly address common issues and to maximise the benefits of being close to each other. New challenges, requiring consensual decisions, are bound to arise and it is clearly in Britain’s self-interest to play its part in shaping new policies and agreed actions. If it abdicates this role, it becomes a defenceless rule-taker in a world in which coherent action by like-minded neighbouring nations is essential.