Last week I visited Portsmouth for the first time in years. One of the historical homes of Britain’s sea power down the centuries, today it feels more like a quiet backwater with just the occasional continental ferry or hovercraft to the Isle of Wight to disturb the peace. On my last visit, which I am reliably informed was shortly after the Task Force had returned from liberating the Falkland Islands, the panorama was dominated by the unmistakeable sea-grey of the Royal Navy. Today, to underscore how much things have changed, only a couple of smokestacks are visible. Indeed, there is even a rumour going round in the local Portsmouth press that the Royal Navy’s dockyards face closure as the senior service faces up to the reality of Treasury cut-backs.
The symbolism of this seems even starker as it emerged over the weekend that the Prime Minister is now seriously mooting the possibility of holding a referendum on our membership of the EU, while his former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, the darling of the Tory Eurosceptic right, is today demanding a renegotiation of our membership or an out-and-out withdrawal from the EU if that fails. Perhaps the only thing to be said for Dr Fox’s arguments is that they are clear and offer no room for misunderstanding – unlike those of his former boss, whose pronouncements on what exactly we, the British electorate, would be asked in such a referendum are, to quote an old English teacher of mine, “clear as mud”.
The restive Europhobes on the Tory backbenches have a high-profile champion in Liam Fox – a heavy-weight whose sound-bites attract the attention they crave in their zealous pursuit of “an escape from Europe”. If the Republican right in the States is dominated by the fanatically anti-Washington Tea Party, Britain’s Conservatives are equally in thrall to “anti-Europeanism”. Indeed, so fiercely focused are they on the purported evils of Brussels and the EU, they seem blissfully unaware of the logical conclusion of their policy. This would be to lead us over the precipice into a very unsplendid isolation, rendering us increasingly irrelevant on the international stage, unable to defend our interests or fight our corner in what has the potential to be the most turbulent period in international relations for nearly a century.
For let us be clear on what is being suggested here. Siren words about re-negotiation are just that. If we honestly believe that as just one of 27, we can turn to our EU partners and demand to renegotiate the terms of our membership on the basis of some “à la carte” policy pick’n’mix, we will be politely but firmly refused. If we then suggest that we will leave if we do not get what we want, there may well be regrets but little more. In essence, we are asking our partner states to let us have our cake and eat it – to participate, but only on our own terms. If we do that, why should France or Germany, or Italy or Poland, or any of the others not do likewise? Every member state has things it likes and things it dislikes about the EU – but it comes as a package, otherwise the whole entity unravels. I have been told repeatedly by British diplomats involved in representing our interests in Brussels in recent years that the point is to be inside the room seeking to influence the argument. On the outside, you can do nothing.
Of course, most anti-European Tories understand this: they know that the choice between re-negotiation and departure is really no choice at all. They are itching to be able to withdraw from the EU, convinced that by doing so Britain will somehow regain all its apparently lost influence. But in this they are sadly – and dangerously – mistaken. In relative decline for at least the last half-century, Britain’s power and influence today rests on its many multilateral commitments. But in particular, it is our memberships of the UN (and especially the Security Council), NATO and the EU which form the basis of our power and influence on the international stage today. Together they form the three essential pillars of our foreign policy. Remove one and you weaken them all.
We are able to fight our corner – punch above our weight, in fact – because of our place in the EU, not in spite of it. Our close relationship with the US relies on our being a key decision-maker in Brussels – how much attention would Washington pay us if we chose to retreat to the periphery? And while politicians and officials do their best to deny any link between the two, departure from the EU would surely call into question our ability to maintain our place on the UN Security Council. Reform of this body deserves more attention than I can give it here, but part of the argument we make for our continuing membership is based around a sense of legitimacy arising from our commitment to multilateralism. Outside the EU, how long could we withstand calls to give up our seat in the face of serious and concerted efforts to achieve Security Council reform?
This, then, is the price we would pay for what the Tory Right likes to present as the reclaiming of Britain’s sovereignty. In a world where a growing number of states are seeking to exercise the kind of influence they feel their economic power merits, it is depressing to see our politicians behaving in such a blinkered and insular manner.
Departure from the EU would make no real difference to the impact Brussels has on the UK. If we want to continue trading with our continental partners, as all politicians profess they do, we would still have to abide by the regulations governing the Single Market. We would merely have ensured that we would be able to play no part in shaping them. The impact internationally would be far worse. At a time when we face ever increasing austerity at home, Dr Fox and his allies would now like us to face isolation, irrelevance and weakness abroad. The Prime Minister’s response? Prevarication.
So much for the national interest.