As the anti -EU movement grows, ex Conservative MEP for Lancashire Central Michael Welsh, argues those in the pro-EU camp need to be braver when arguing their case, if Britain is to continue to play its part in the world.
In the concluding chapters of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy compares the course of history to a vast-fast flowing river, driven by irresistible natural forces and carrying all before it; the role of the statesman is to navigate the ship of state taking advantage of the current. Attempts to sail against the current usually end in disaster.
In our time the mighty river, Globalisation, is changing the nature of the world at a breakneck pace and political institutions rooted in the 19th century concept of the sovereign national state, find it impossible to keep up. To reverse the tide of history and restore the primacy of the nation state would involve a package of measures including state control of the internet, and ending the four freedoms on which the European Single Market is based.
The limitations of inter-governmental relations were evident before Globalisation. In 1914 direct bilateral relations between independent sovereign states, locked into a system of competing alliances, without any form of supra-national infrastructure, led to a catastrophic war which none of the participants actually wanted.
Jean Monnet and his collaborators understood that a system of international order could only work if it was underpinned by free standing autonomous institutions based on legally binding treaties with the power to compel its members to honour obligations into which they had freely entered. This principle underpins the European Union, which, despite its many failings and inadequacies, remains the most sophisticated attempt yet at a supra-national order that aggregates the sovereignty of its individual members to express a single collective interest.
Geography and history have conspired to make it particularly difficult for the English to adjust to the realities of supra-national organisation in the shape of the EU. Not for nothing did Winston Churchill entitle his history of Britain This Island Race. The English governing class has found it well nigh impossible to engage with the institutions of the EU, there is no recognition of common interest or shared objectives, simply a wearying repetition of a zero sum game in which plucky British negotiators allegedly stand up to and see off crafty and self interested continentals. Obsessed as they are with outmoded notions of national sovereignty, Britain’s political leaders have proved incapable of explaining to the electorate that membership of the EU with all its actual and potential benefits necessarily requires some concessions on national freedom of action and recognition of a greater collective interest but continue to pretend that somehow they can have it both ways.
The European Union has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to changing geo-political circumstances but it is increasingly challenged by the pace of technological change and the pressure of world events; reforms are urgently necessary but these can only be effected through a broad consensus and not the perceived requirements of individual member states. The European Commission is a consensus building institution with a specific responsibility to look out for the interests of smaller countries and ensure that partners do not renege on their commitments in pursuit of short term expediency. It does not always perform these tasks well but it is up to the member states to engage in the process and support the commission in upping its game.
Of course there are specific national interests that should be pursued but this is best done within a multi-national framework that provides substantial negotiating clout. It is right and proper that the British and other European peoples should take pride in their history and traditions and promote their separate identities, but identity should not be confused with a 19th century concept of sovereign independence.
Pro-Europeans need to have the courage of their convictions and appeal to the citizenry in a way that transcends party politics and puts the common interest first. This requires hammering home some unpalatable truths but there are opportunities on a global scale for peace, prosperity, development, democracy, education and higher living standards; Britain, with her partners could play a part in achieving all this but not if we isolate ourselves in a haze of self indulgent nostalgia. After all if one is trying to navigate a vast fast-flowing river, jumping out of the boat would seem more like suicide than a means of survival.