During the conference season, it’s easy to forget that really important things are actually happening in the world. From the perspective of these hallowed islands, the most important is the slow motion socio-economic implosion of the Euro-zone. You will hear noisy fringe meetings of Conservatives demanding that we withdraw from the European Union, but on the ‘progressive’ side of the divide, there is hardly a peep on the subject.
This is a rather bizarre omission. About half of Britain’s trade occurs within the EU free trade area, with the result that the British manufacturing sector is heavily dependent on our membership. Our defence policy, such as it is, is based on strategic cooperation with European countries, notably France. EU structures provide many smaller advantages to us, for example if a British teenager is abducted by her teacher and taken to Europe they can be returned with the help of a European Arrest Warrant. Yet the only case being put forward with any enthusiasm today is that we should leave the EU.
If we are to take a proper strategic decision about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU, then we first need to seriously consider the situation on the continent as it stands. The Euro as it is currently constituted is a disaster. There is mass unemployment causing extreme social unrest in southern Europe. This is the result of those countries being unable to devalue their currencies to make their exports more competitive, and instead being locked in to a currency which basically favours Germany. This situation is politically unsustainable. In the end, one of two things will happen. Either the Euro-zone will become fiscally and politically a single entity, where money is transferred on a large scale from the core (Germany/Holland) to the periphery (most other places). Alternatively the currency will break up, because core countries are unwilling to take up this burden. In this case the move towards “ever closer union” is reversed, and Europe reverts back towards a looser federation, scarred by the memory of the economic pain that has been unleashed on it by the integrationists.
The time to make a decision is then, when we actually know what we are deciding to do. Choosing to leave the EU now would simply limit Britain’s available options later on, to little discernible benefit. A more closely integrated Europe would almost certainly require a blunt out, while a loose federation would probably mean a return to a sort of nineteenth century style of diplomacy, and being a member of the EU, with a place at the decision making table, would probably be much better than being locked outside. This will be an absolutely critical choice, and it must be done in the right way. It is hard to imagine a statesman like Castlereagh advocating a course of action which could so seriously limit Britain’s strategic options, and do so for narrow party political advantage, as some people do today. The decision must be taken at a time when the British national interest can be properly determined and proper arguments marshalled by both sides. Foreign policy is not some kind of party political game. It matters.