Monday, December 10, 2012

Goodbye Europe? No, Goodbye Britain

In 26 European Union countries, (and one acceding country, Croatia) today is something of a celebration, albeit a muted one, given the circumstances of continued economic hardship- the European Union will formally receive recognition as the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. In one other European Union member state it is the occasion of ridicule and disbelief. Admittedly the contemptible British press prefers to hypocritically attack an Australian radio programme for an unfortunate prank that went badly wrong, so probably remarkably few people in the UK may be aware of the special recognition that the EU is getting, unless they encounter some sneering comment on page 17.

Across the British political spectrum, the European Union has become a bogeyman for all of the ills that afflict the dis-United Kingdom. "Brussels bureaucrats"- although there are actually fairly few of them- are the first in line in the British political blame game. Britain is allowed to opt out of more than half of the activity of the EU, and yet "Brussels" continues to be accused of unwanted meddling. It is a fantasy, but those who protest are branded as obsessive Europhiles. In fact, as my friend Willis Pickard points out, Leveson has condemned the anti-European newspapers for "fabrication" and "careless misrepresentation of the facts". He also makes clear the impact of the unrelenting hostility of the press has had on government policy making. It is essentially impossible to make a positive case for engagement with the EU without receiving a barrage of negative coverage. Alone of the EU leaders, Gordon Brown chose to sign the treaty of Lisbon late and in a locked room- a pitiable display of cowardice, to be sure, but one that underlines how far the UK is now from the mainstream, even of agreements it actually signs. 

Funnily enough support for British membership of the EU has slumped to a new low.

The result is now that the once unthinkable idea of British withdrawal from the European Union is now being taken seriously. Yet the principle proponents of this one-way ticket have failed to explain what they would settle for. The Economist, not a notably left-wing publication, points out just how reckless an EU exit could be- the fact is that the only way to gain the supposed benefits that the anti-Europeans expect from withdrawal would be not the "simple commercial/trade relationship" that the Tories and UKIP wish for, but in fact a complete withdrawal- including from the single market, which the Tories still profess to hold so dear. The fact is that the Europhobes have been either breathtakingly naive or willfully blind- out will indeed mean out and that means completely out, otherwise there is simply no point in leaving at all. Rather like the SNP, who have also been caught out by their wishful, rather than practical, view of EU membership, the Tories can not have it both ways. Yet despite their abject failure to address the critical issue, the noisy Europhobes are still being taken seriously by their friends in the press- if by ever fewer people elsewhere.

The European Union would be diminished by a "Brexit". Yet the European Union will survive- indeed it still seems likely to acquire even more members. It would be recognizably the same institution. Can the same be said for the United Kingdom? 

The foundation of the success of the SNP in Scotland has been "independence in Europe". Could it be that new life is breathed into the sickly support for Scottish separatism if a post-EU United Kingdom finds its economy trashed and its political clout reduced to the same level as Malaysia? Far from the reinvigorated Kingdom that UKIP and the Tories proclaim, we could instead see the rapid end of the British state. To my mind it is at least as likely as any other outcome from this reckless, ill planned and ill judged policy.

So I believe in two Federal ideas: the British Federation and the European one. They are complimentary, not opposed. To break the EU, as UKIP and its allies propose, would not be good news for the EU, but it could be utterly disastrous for Britain.

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