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Letter from Europe

January 2013

  • Alexander Downer

This summer my reading included a stunning new history of the causes of the First World War called The Sleepwalkers, written by the Cambridge based historian Christopher Clark.

The book is a confronting reminder of how power politics and nationalist rivalries plunged the world into a war which killed over 16 million people.

At the same time, I was also struck by the current debate in Britain about its membership of the European Union. As someone who spent several years living in Brussels working at the Australian Mission to the EU, I’ve embraced with some passion the leitmotiv of the European Union: that Europeans will avoid repeating the horrors of the 20th century by restructuring the whole continent in a co-operative Union.

At one level, the European project has been a stunning success. The French and Germans work hand in hand, day by day to manage harmoniously the affairs of the Continent. And for all the uncertainties of the euro in recent years – and the euro was a mistake – the ugly power rivalries and obsessive nationalism of Europe have been tamed.

Then there is Britain. It decided not to join the European project at its birth in the 1950s. It was a huge mistake. In 1957 Britain was the most powerful nation in Europe. It could have moulded the new European institutions to its liking and been at the centre of Europe’s power structure. Instead, it chose to remain aloof with its traditional European policy of what was once called “glorious isolation”.

Finally, in 1973, Britain joined the EU but by then all the rules and institutions had been set up by the French and Germans. As a new member, Britain just had to go along with those rules. For the British, it was like a rugby player joining a soccer team.
Since 1973, Britain has gained economically from the EU. It has increased its trade, helped with investment flows and the EU has been an important source of skilled and semi-skilled migrants. These days, London is the fifth largest French city in the world.

Yet Britain has failed to make the most of its EU membership. It has marginalised itself too often allowing the French and the Germans to continue to dominate the EU agenda. Mind you, Britain was right to remain outside the euro. That was the one really valuable contribution Gordon Brown made to Britain. But it would have been far better if Britain had stopped the euro in the first place.

And that’s the problem. France and Germany are making the policies and Britain allows them to do so. And only once the policies have been made does Britain object. No British prime minister has managed the EU relationship effectively since 1973. Even Margaret Thatcher struggled with Europe.

Well now there’s a debate about whether Britain should remain in the EU at all. This is gaining considerable momentum. Opinion polls show more Britons would rather leave the EU than remain in it.

There is an important political angle to this which is causing an excruciating dilemma for the Prime Minister, David Cameron. The anti-EU UK Independence Party is polling around 10 per cent of the vote. Most of these voters are disillusioned Conservatives. They’re not just driven by EU issues; plenty of Conservative voters are unhappy with the performance of the government in general and UKIP is somewhere for them to park their votes rather than switch to the opposition Labour Party.

So Conservatives from Cameron down want to win back these voters and they see Europe as a way of doing it. They believe – mistakenly – that downgrading still further Britain’s role in Europe will do the job. It won’t. Good economic management will kill off UKIP, not euro scepticism.

The worry about Britain is that it is sleepwalking out of the EU. No one is explaining the case for Britain’s EU membership. They should. If Britain leaves the EU it will be substantially weakened both politically and economically.

Politically, Britain will lack the strength it gains from being part of a 27 member transnational organisation which is, collectively, the biggest economy in the world. Economically, Britain risks that free access it has to a market of 500 million people as well as the benefits of a liberal investment zone.

So leaving the EU would be suicidal for Britain. It would leave it cold and alone in North Western Europe. Even its closest ally, America, wouldn’t want to see that. As a great friend of Britain’s, we should be telling the British government it’s in Australia’s interests as well as their own they remain active in the EU, not withdraw into undignified isolation.

Sure, the EU has its weaknesses. It has huge weaknesses. But Britain needs to work to rectify them. In 1914, Britain should have been trying to constrain Austria, Germany, Russia and France but instead just sat back and let war happen. They should learn the lessons of history.




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