By Geoffrey Van Orden
Does it matter whether Britain stays in or leaves the European Union? Given Britain’s global position—as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, as one of the top five world economies, as a member of the G-7, as the head of a Commonwealth of 53 nations, as a major military power with global nuclear and conventional reach, as a leading member of NATO, as home to one of just two global financial centers, and currently a leading member of the 28-nation bloc that is the European Union—it matters enormously.
Britain’s decision has profound consequences, not just for the U.K., but for the rest of the EU and the whole international system.
So why is Britain’s EU referendum on a knife-edge? Why do so many Brits want to leave the EU? In a nutshell, because they believe the EU undermines Britain’s historic status as a free, independent, parliamentary democracy controlling its own land and destiny. Unlike other international organizations, the EU is not just inter-governmental; it assumes powers normally exercised by national governments. Its very purpose is to erode national sovereignty. It takes competences from the British parliament and judiciary and imposes some laws directly onto the British people. Britain has a say in this but is often outvoted. The contrived concept of “EU citizenship” means that any citizen of the 28 EU member countries can travel and live in any other one unhindered. Britain therefore no longer has full control over who enters its territory. For many Leave campaigners, this has become the most salient issue in the referendum.
I have a lot of sympathy for these points. As a dyed-in-the-wool “Euroskeptic”—but not an automatic proponent of exiting the EU—who has spent many years opposing so much of EU policy, I have found the black or white decision to “Remain” or “Leave” especially difficult. Like most of the British people, I have no affection for the EU and I have never seen it as my task to promote its political objectives. That is still my position. Nevertheless, I am recommending that we remain in a reformed EU. Like, I suspect, many in the U.K., I am a “reluctant Remainer.” Why?
I believe Britain has carved out a special position in the EU while retaining our seat at the top table. We have now negotiated many areas of British exceptionalism: we are not in the eurozone, we keep the pound; we are exempt from “ever closer union,” the relentless process of European political integration; we keep our border controls as we are outside the Schengen area, the continental border-free travel zone; we can now impose welfare and other restrictions to reduce the “pull” factors for EU migrants; and we are adamant in saying “No” to an EU Army—we have no doubts that it is our alliance with the United States through NATO that provides the vital guarantee against major external threats to our security.
In my view, we can minimize the impact of the objectionable aspects of the EU while retaining the advantages. The importance of our economic links and the fragility of the international economic system demand stability and confidence, not unnecessary risk. Britain needs unfettered, tariff-free access to its biggest market, the European single market of 500 million people. At the same time we need to have influence over what happens in Europe. If we left the EU, the bloc would still be there but we would have no say in the way things are done. It runs counter to British foreign policy over many centuries to leave the continent under the sway of Paris or Berlin—or, for that matter, Brussels. Not one of our many friends and allies around the world, including the United States, is asking us to leave the EU. On the contrary, they want us to stay. Admittedly, this is often for selfish reasons—they want us in Brussels to look after their interests. But that’s no bad thing—it gives us more clout with them. They would certainly think less of us if we had no weight in continental Europe.
It is also clear to me that the solution to many of Britain’s problems rests with the national government, not Brussels. This includes the most toxic issue in the referendum campaign: immigration. Contrary to public perception, most migrants to Britain (by a factor of three to one over the past 20 years) do not come from Europe and controlling their numbers has nothing to do with Brussels.
Most importantly, Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear that “Britain’s unique position and power in the world is not defined by our membership of the EU.” He is committed to enhancing Britain’s strategic and economic role in the world beyond the EU.
We do not want to give Scottish separatists an excuse to put our United Kingdom once more in jeopardy (they would crank up demands for another Scottish independence vote if Britain opted to leave the EU). And we always retain the option to leave the EU if Brussels doesn’t heed the lessons or respect Britain’s unique position, while re-joining after an exit would be much harder.
I have taken account of all of these factors in coming to my decision. For me, this is not a question of U.K. or EU. It is about maximizing the U.K.’s global potential at a difficult and dangerous time.
Provided the British government nails down the exceptional British position in the EU and continues the push for reform, remaining in the EU avoids an economic shock, maintains confidence, and enables Britain to continue to take advantage of its influence in Europe and access to the EU’s massive market while enhancing its global economic, diplomatic, and strategic role beyond the EU. If Britain plays her strong hand well, it has the opportunity to seize the best of both worlds.
Geoffrey Van Orden is a senior member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees. He is Conservative Defence Spokesman and Vice Chairman of the Parliament’s third largest political group, the European Conservatives & Reformists, which he helped create. He was first elected as Conservative Member of the European Parliament for the East of England in 1999, and previously he was a senior British military officer.
[Photo Courtesy of Dan Stokie]