A common thread in both the Remain and Leave campaigns is that the EU is something that is done by them to us. Crudely, Leave wants no more of this. And, equally crudely, Remain are saying that if we go what they will do to us (or even what we will do to ourselves by leaving) will be “such revenges…….such things, what they are, yet I know not: but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
But Britain has not been a passive victim. Its actions and failures to act, its failure to think strategically about its place in the world are important reasons why the relationship between Britain and the EU is the neuralgic mess it appears to be. Here are my 5 examples of what Britain has done wrong and what we might, whatever the result, learn from them.
1) Not joining from the start.
Had Britain joined from the start it would and could have fashioned a structure and approach much more in tune with itself, it would have felt a sense of ownership and pride in its creation and it would have had and felt a sense of control over its development, all factors missing now and reasons why so many voters appear to be leaning towards Leave. The reasons why it did not were noble ones. But there was nonetheless a strategic error.
At a time when Britain had – even in its exhausted economic and physical state – immense moral and political credit within Europe and an opportunity to take leadership, it chose not to. Arguably, Britain failed to learn the lesson from the previous great European war – not WW1 – but the war against Revolutionary then Napoleonic France when Britain at the Congress of Vienna helped re-establish a European settlement, a settlement which allowed Britain to concentrate on its Imperial ambitions and industrial development. 130 years later should the demands of Empire and internal reconstruction have diverted Britain from thinking properly about its role in the creation of an equally stable European settlement? Winning the war should have been the start not the end of the process.
This is seen as a British disaster. But it was a Franco-British disaster. And the differing reactions of France and Britain are interesting: France took the message that the US would act in its own interests and that it should look to a strong Europe in which France would play a key role. Britain decided to cleave as closely as possible to the US so as never to be humiliated again.
Whatever the consequences of that it meant that Britain did not think hard enough about what its role in the world – and Europe in particular – should be. Being the plump friend of the most popular girl/biggest bully in class is not really a role, more an act of desperation out of fear of being left out.
3) When it joined it did so out of economic weakness.
Britain lacked self-confidence, was seen as the sick man of Europe and looked on in disbelief and envy at a Continent that seemed to be powering ahead despite having been defeated. That this humiliation should be suffered by the country that won the war was seen as unfair. The Common Market was the future then. That lack of confidence persisted for some time and fed a belief that this was the only way in which it could regain its former greatness. Emotion is important in decision-making, of course, but it works best if there is also a hard edge of cool rational thought. Joining late at a time of economic weakness, with feelings of low self-esteem, resentment and unfairness and resulted – perhaps – in Britain never fully thinking through and articulating to itself what it was joining and why and what the consequences for Britain really were.
The political class has refused to accept the essentially political nature of the EU project. It has alternately tried to pretend that these were just words or did not matter or would not affect us. It has never really levelled with the voters about this. Its explanation has been that the voters wouldn’t have it. But it was never really tried. The EU was seen as a “foreign” issue when really it should have been seen, treated and sold as a domestic matter.
Britain’s membership of the EU was far too important for the voters here to be left in the hands of the Foreign Office. It has had one baleful consequence: the voters have been ignored. The FCO – of all departments – is the one least concerned about what British voters want or say. That distance between the EU-political-bureaucratic class in Britain and voters is now plain to all in the immigration debate.
Underestimating the EU’s fundamentally political nature has also meant that Britain has underestimated what other EU states want. So Mrs Thatcher gave up many vetoes in the Single European Act to get her beloved single market but did not appreciate that others states and the EU itself were not so interested in the market side and would use those powers to take steps which Britain did not want.
5) What is Britain’s role in the EU?
Britain has had no real European strategy. It’s been all about tactics: a victory here, a veto there, a handbagging here, an opt-out there. Germany is in the EU to stop Germany going mad and destroying half the Continent. France is there because it sees itself as Europe’s natural leader with a superior bureaucratic caste and wants to keep a very close eye on its neighbour. Italy is there because the EU gives it better governance than its homegrown politicians ever did. The former Warsaw Pact countries are there because the EU provides an infinitely better home than their previous prison.
Why is Britain there? The failure to articulate this has led to empty slogans followed by rows and tantrums and sulks. It is unedifying and best calculated to annoy others rather than get them on your side. Too often it has been about what it doesn’t want. And it has never really articulated a strategy for the EU that might have been attractive to other EU states.
History? Maybe. But whatever the result, 4 and 5 are still relevant: Britain will need to articulate a strategy for its relationship with the EU, whether in or out. And to do that it will need to tell us what the EU really means. Is our political class up to this task? Something more than a version of Marshall’s “Our Island Story” and some Latin sayings are surely needed.