These days far too few Ambassadors are distinguished (or even undistinguished) poets. In 1845 James Russell Lowell wrote the hymn Once to Every Man and Nation to protest America’s war with Mexico. Virtue was duly rewarded and in 1880 he was appointed US Ambassador in London, hugely impressing Queen Victoria. Little did he suspect that a mere 136 years later that hymn would sum up (albeit in a sexist way) the dilemma facing British voters in a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union: “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side”Diligent Diplomat magazine readers have been following my various gloomy thoughts here about the EU and what it represents. Thus: “The problem with you is that you always argue from first principles!”
True. But what other principles are out there? If you point out that an imposing house is built on weak foundations (2011), why is that a problem and not a public service?
Which is better I asked in 2012: to be a fat serf or a skinny freeman? To be Illinois? Or Canada? Or best of all, to avoid for a few more years the ghastly decision?
The issues facing EU leaders as they glare at each other across the table boil down to these questions from 2015: Is Greece serious about abandoning its wasteful ways? Can Greece in fact abandon its wasteful ways? What if it does everything it can, but that still does not make Greece meet eurozone standards?
Ah. Was the eurozone crisis not awful enough for you? Allow me to present migration crisis! Greece recently took the remarkable step of withdrawing its Ambassador from Austria in protest at Vienna’s decision to cap the numbers of asylum-seekers that it will accept. Senior EU officials are warning that the Schengen system, which allows borderless movement for EU citizens and anyone with a Schengen visa, is about to collapse.
The sunny Euro-optimism that followed the Cold War is giving way to rancour and resentment. The EU’s enlargement to bring in Poland and the other former Communist countries of central Europe has been a historic political, economic and moral success. But perhaps the EU now is simply too big and complicated to work in its current form.
Just when they have needed maximum adult attention for these grim problems, EU leaders have found themselves poring over a supposed ‘new settlement for the UK within the EU.’ The results are, at best, ahem, modest. A ringing but largely symbolic declaration about the UK not being committed to ‘ever closer union;’ undignified tweaking of the rules on social benefits for EU migrants; and an impossibly elaborate undertaking to let national parliaments ask nicely that EU decisions affecting ‘subsidiarity’ be reconsidered. Are these changes legally binding (whatever that means in this context)? Hell yes! Hell no!
Nothing else was possible without changing the EU treaties, and under the current circumstances no-one wanted to do that for fear of ‘reform contagion,’ as a leaked memo has drolly described the possibility that other EU member states might seek significant changes to the EU project. What? More reform?! Whatever next?
The problem with the debate in the UK as the referendum looms in June is that we can’t agree what it’s really about. The #UKinEU and #Brexit camps struggle to ‘frame’ the debate to suit their arguments. Sovereignty. Money. Freedom. Fear. Hope. Risk. Is Brexit a crazy leap into the dark? Or a confident stride into the light?
Take this tweet in February from Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh: “The referendum is not about ‘what kind of country we want to be.’ A weighing of interests is not a matter of the soul.”
No. Weighing of interests is exactly a matter of the soul, since it is the soul that decides what interests count for what. He appears to be claiming that the UK’s membership of the EU is essentially a technocratic phenomenon within which ‘interests’ can be ‘weighed’ to some precision. But how do we start to balance the economic benefits to the UK of being in the EU against the fact that our historic parliamentary democracy is hugely eroded? Is it ‘better’ to be poorer but have greater national control over our own policies? Head or Heart? Body or Soul?
Political philospher Philip Blond tweets that the UK gains sovereignty from being an EU member: “If sovereignty is the power to shape events to your national interest it’s clear that being in the EU increases UK sovereignty (PM is right).”
No. Are China, Russia, North Korea and Nigeria missing out on sovereignty because they are not EU members? Instead of focusing on how best to influence world events, UK diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere around the planet sit in interminable EU working groups. Much of their working effort goes into trying to reconcile UK positions with small member states that have no foreign policy capability other than to use EU meetings to slow down those large member states that do have one. Back in 2008 the European Council on Foreign Relations bemoaned the results: “The EU is suffering a slow-motion crisis at the United Nations … Europe has lost ground because of a reluctance to use its leverage and a tendency to look inwards – with 1,000 coordination meetings in New York alone each year – rather than talk to others.”
Look at the rival positions more broadly. There are only two campaigning positions in democratic politics: “Steady as she goes” and “It’s time for a change.”
The ‘Ins’ proclaim ‘steady as she goes’ as the wise and above all safe course. Don’t rock the boat, and especially don’t let nasty nutty anti-internationalist xenophobes (mainly from the Right but some from the Left too) rock it. We Brits are now so entwined with EU processes that breaking away must cause huge uncertainty and disruption. Does anyone need all that risk, given instability in the Middle East and even in Europe’s own Ukraine?
The ‘Outs’ reply that it makes sense not only to rock the boat, but indeed to jump out of it when the boat is heading to disaster. EU Europe is no longer a ‘safe space’ but a complacent, declining and badly run area. Yes, there will be disruption and uncertainty. But what we have now is also increasingly disrupted and uncertain and simply incompetent. Much better to take back confident control of our own destiny, thereby freeing resources for ambitious new internal and external policies. You ‘Ins’ are pessimists – we ‘Outs’ are optimists!
The #UKinEU camp have two specific arguments that ought to make Eurosceptics uneasy: firstly, it’s been a good bet for the last thousand years or so to find out what Vladimir Putin wants you to do, then not do that. He’ll be delighted to see the EU fragmenting – does the UK really want to risk that? Secondly… just say you win this referendum. Then what? What’s your plan for managing the ensuing turmoil? How do you expect to negotiate a sensible new relationship with the EU when every EU leader hates us for creating an omnishambles?
The first argument is essentially pessimistic, if not desperate. Is the EU in such bad shape that it can’t muster a new smart formula for 27 member states, plus the UK joining forces with Washington and others, to oppose Russian nihilism in Ukraine and elsewhere?
The second argument likewise rests on alarming assumptions about inherent EU irrationality: EU leaders will be so enraged and confounded by a Brexit vote that they will act against their own interests and do what they can to ‘punish’ London and themselves for a good while thereafter. Those assumptions may not be wrong. Maybe the EU is indeed increasingly unable to act wisely in the face of so many simultaneous crises. But is that a reason for staying in it, or for tiptoeing politely out of the madhouse?
I recall an FCO Leadership Conference back in the mid-2000s addressed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the Q&A our then Ambassador to France warned the Prime Minister that current British policies were going down very badly in Paris.
Tony Blair said something fascinating and perceptive in reply: “Well, at some point you have to make an almost aesthetic choice about what you’re trying to do and what you are.”
He was right. Let poet-diplomat James Russell Lowell have the final words: “Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight, and the choice goes by forever, ‘twixt that darkness and that light.’”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]