by Charles Kennedy MP
The Prime Minister’s speech at the end of January has created a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among those that believe in Britain’s membership of the EU. Many, both within the UK but also among our European and global partners, have expressed concern about the possibility of Britain exiting the EU, as the PM raised it in his speech. But irrespectively of the reasons behind the PM’s attitude towards the EU and his ability to deliver what he promised in January, his speech has focused public attention and forced front-line politicians and business with pro-European sentiments to come out and join organisations like the European Movement in defending Britain’s membership of the EU.
The public’s attitude is also changing. After decades of anti-EU bias in the political discourse and across the tabloid press, the British people only had the opportunity to listen to the euromyth-infused anti-EU arguments. As a result their perception of the EU membership is one-dimensional. But as the coalition in favour of EU membership enlarges and the advantages of membership are finally articulated, public opinion is shifting. There is still a lot to play for of course, but with mainstream politicians, business, the trade unions, the US, global investors and Britain’s European partners advising against EU exit, public opinion is finally acquainted with what it really means to be a member of the EU and what are the dangers of a potential exit. It is imperative that pro-Europeans in the UK explain what the real benefits of EU membership are, in an effort to counter-balance the negative image projected by the tabloid press, UKIP and some Conservative MPs and even Ministers. At the same time we must build bridges with other EU states and ensure they do not allow Britain to slide towards the EU exit. An organisation like the European Movement, which as part of a wide, pan-European network of organisations, has played a pivotal role in the process of European integration in the past 60 years, has an important role to play in this sense. In my contact with politicians across the EU I can see first-hand that Britain still commands respect among European nations. So a British government, which is prepared to constructively engage with its EU partners and work towards strengthening the Union, deepening the Single Market, improving the way it works and enhancing the EU’s global reach, will be able to help shape the future of the European Union.
What is important to understand is that the process of European integration is not a zero-sum game, where nations compete against each other for the preservation of the national interest. On the contrary, the EU is a consensus-based organisation, founded on the principle of compromise and the pursuit of the common interest. A British government which is prepared to engage in those terms will find it much easier to promote its own priorities, which are intimately linked to the interests of the European Union as a whole. The creation of the Single Market and the enlargement process are two prime examples of Britain working with its EU partners and succeeding in materialising two of the most ambitious and successful undertakings in the EU’s history.
It is easy to detract why a British exit from the EU will have undesirable consequences. Britain will lose massively in economic terms. With over 40% of our trade going to the EU and about 50% of FDI emanating from our continental neighbours, leaving the EU will have negative effects on the country’s economic well-being. Britain’s ability to be part of big trade deals will also be reduced. Negotiating as a member of a 500 million strong market, an economy worth €12 trillion, offers all member states a competitive advantage; collective bargaining strengthens our hand. The same applies to other global agreements, not least on environmental and climate change negotiations. Furthermore, Britain and its EU partners increase their reach in foreign policy terms when speaking with one voice, enhancing their ability to promote European values across the world, especially in places that suffer under the rule of dictators with sinister intentions. Also, EU membership offers economies of scale when it comes to defence expenditure at a time of austerity, when defence budgets are under pressure. We can share the burden of security by working together, like in the case of fighting piracy off the east coast of Africa, where the EU mission has been successful in protecting the lives of EU citizens and European commercial interests.
Leaving the EU will not enhance Britain’s sovereignty. It will shrink it. At an age of continent-sized powers, with global ambitions, European nations are better off working together, pooling resources, joining forces in the pursuit of common interests. Britain alone, adrift in the Atlantic, squeezed between the US, the EU, China, Brazil, India and other global powers will be relegated to a bystander of world events, unable to shape history and influence its own destiny. Now more than even membership of a strong, confident, effective, outward looking European Union should be an absolute priority for all European nations. Playing games with something so important is dangerous and short-sighted.