So in the Queen’s speech we have been assured that there will be a referendum on our membership of the European Union by 2017 at the latest. I am delighted that this is going to happen, although I already have grave misgivings about the way in which the debate is going to be framed. The principal deceit as I see it will be to confuse two things which are logically and politically separate – membership in the European Union, and participation in the common market.
We have a history of fair dealing in this country, and my sense of what happened in the previous referendum back in 1975 (the template for which seems to be the one that Cameron is following) is that the British people voted to join a free trade area, a customs union. We had a sense that we would be able to compete within it and earn our way forward. What I suspect was not made clear to the British people, and what I am worried will once again become obscured in the national debate, is that there is a significant difference between a free trade area and the political union that the EU embodies.
There is no excuse for this distinction not to be placed at the forefront of the campaign. The language of the European Union treaties are very clear, not least in the reference to an ‘ever closer union’ in the original Treaty of Rome which set up the European Economic Community, language which has been built upon in all the subsequent treaties. The symbolism of this is straightforward – simply look at a current passport, which demonstrates that British citizens are first and foremost citizens of Europe. That includes our Queen.
It is not essential to be a member of a political union (the EU) in order to benefit from the free trade area. There is another organisation, called EFTA, the European Free Trade Area, which has access to the European Economic Area but which does not require the member nations to concede sovereignty to a supra-national organisation. In addition, the most important elements of global trade are established at a higher level than the EU, through the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. Given that we purchase more from Europe than Europe does from us it is clearly in everyone’s interests that the economic side of our present arrangements is disrupted as little as possible, and that could be done through transferring our membership of the EU to EFTA instead.
No, the real issue at stake in the coming referendum is about national sovereignty. Put simply, do we wish to take charge of our own affairs and work our way in the world as a mature and independent nation? I sometimes feel that our national confidence, at least at the level of the institutional establishment, was at an extremely low ebb in the post-war period, climaxing in the mid-70s, and that this was a factor in the campaign to dissolve our sovereignty. We had infamously ‘lost an Empire and not found a role’. It was as if we could no longer govern ourselves, and looked for a higher authority to take over.
The trouble with that higher authority is that, in the subsequent decades, it has taken on more and more responsibility in more and more areas of our national life, changing everything from how we measure and weigh things to how we fish and how we are able to generate electricity. The true locus of power governing this nation is now off-shore, in Brussels (or, more precisely, in wherever the rolling caravan of ministerial meetings chooses to get together). I do not believe that the British people chose to give up that sovereignty back in 1975 and it is essential that a clear understanding of what is at stake is communicated over the next eighteen months or so, until the referendum itself takes place.
The campaign has already begun, of course, with a salvo of pro-EU businessmen talking about the economic costs of disengaging from the EU. Their actions are what has prompted this article, as I do not wish to see their narrative become the dominant one. If the argument is once again reduced to economics it would represent a deceit about the true nature of the decision that we face. If the argument is centred upon national sovereignty then we will at least be able to say that whatever answer is given is a definitive one. After all, if the British people choose consciously to surrender their sovereignty then that will be that. We will, in practice, become the north-west provice of the European Union, no longer able to make our own choices in the world, which I would see as an immense tragedy and shame – but if that is what people choose, then so be it.
I have two grounds for hope that the national debate will indeed centre on questions of sovereignty, and not on questions of economics. The first is that I believe it to be unlikely that Cameron will be able to get anything substantial from his ‘negotiations’ with other European leaders. It is clear that they are trying to establish a stronger political centre for the EU in order to cope with the stresses and strains caused by the misconceived adoption of the single European Currency. As was predicted at the time, a single currency across different nations could only work if there was also a single political authority with the capacity to require fiscal transfers from one area to another. A currency union without such a political union to reinforce it was simply a recipe for disaster – a disaster that we are now seeing the shape of.
Which leads me to my second ground for hope. I do not believe that the situation in Greece is going to end very well, and it will demonstrate the political nature of the European Union in spectacular fashion. It is unconscionable for the Greek people to be immiserated as a result of decisions made by the political and financial elites in which they had no part. The crisis there – which will likely come to a head in the next few weeks when the Greek government declares bankruptcy – will show the political nature of the EU to anyone watching. It will be the moment when the mask slips and the underlying truth of the EU will emerge.
We need to have a proper debate about the nature of the EU before the referendum, and that proper debate has to centre upon the political nature of the EU, not simply whether we will be better or worse off in a financial sense. We are worth more than that.