image: freeimages.com/Vince Varga
by Ben Walters
President Obama’s advice during his recent visit – that the UK is stronger within the EU – was evidently irksome in itself to many of Eurosceptic persuasion. His follow-up threat, then, that the US would not be immediately inclined to establish a new trade agreement with the UK should it vote to leave, would surely have left at least a few with one thing at the back of their minds: who needs enemies? The UK hasn’t even grasped new status yet as an independent colossus armed with liberated economic might, and our closest ally is already undermining us!
In all seriousness, though, it is no doubt healthy for partners to occasionally tell each other what they believe is in their best interests. Indeed, there are plenty on this side of the Atlantic – of the political spectrum and public alike – who have been candidly vocal in declaring who they think the American electorate should and shouldn’t opt for among the candidates fighting to be their respective parties’ presidential nominees. But while advice is one thing, threats are quite another. Just as the US looks to tailor its foreign policy towards the UK with the referendum and its outcome in mind, then, so too the UK should perhaps consider whether we are looking in the right direction for our most suitable friends in the world.
Analyses of the UK’s complicated relationship with Europe (or should that be ‘the rest of Europe’, ‘her fellow European neighbours’ et cetera.) fill countless volumes, but in a nutshell; language, values, culture and knowledge have been shared, wars have been fought between and alongside one another, and an economic union (created initially to ensure that the aforementioned wars are less viable in future) has been developed which, in theory at least, enables easier access to and prosperous sharing of the continent’s resources. It is the flaws in this latter element of the relationship that currently cause discontent in the UK.
Immigration has been thrust into the limelight as a cornerstone of the EU debate in the UK, so it would be prudent to address this. Now, whilst the metropolitan elite, amongst others, might dismiss all concerns about immigration as the sheer bigotry of raving racists, it can be argued that in some cases there are more valid foundations to these concerns. One point of view is that unrestricted immigration is a luxury the UK cannot currently afford. The varied culture that a diverse population brings can improve people’s quality of life and expand their range of experiences. For some – particularly younger – people, this is the biggest draw to life in the larger cities, where diversity is usually at its broadest. However, whilst proponents of unlimited and unregulated immigration argue that newcomers from abroad make a net contribution to the Treasury, it is questionable whether or not the UK has in place the physical infrastructure required to accommodate a growing population at this time. The looming housing crisis and a stretched NHS are a few examples of why we might not be ready to welcome the world unreservedly just yet. If prioritisation is to be enforced, then, the UK should perhaps be looking to fill the gaps in its employment market first. It would surely be sensible to ensure that teachers, scientists, engineers etc. are not missing out to others.
From another angle, if the UK must decide that immigrants from one part of the world are welcomed at the expense of those from other regions, then perhaps the EU isn’t compatible with our interests. One doesn’t have to be ardently apologetic about Britain’s colonial past to understand at least to some extent the sentiment that we might owe more to the citizens of the Commonwealth than we owe to our fellow Europeans. It must be acknowledged here that there is a tendency to sensationalise this issue – immigrants are by no means swarming onto the island and filling every nook and cranny – but it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed outright when considering it as an argument against continued membership of the EU.
A far greater cause for concern, though, ought really to be the EU’s priorities, and we come here to the Common Agricultural Policy. Though hardly the sexy front-page attention grabber that immigration seems to present for journalists, it is surprising just how little is said about a policy that consumes anything between 33% and 42% of the EU’s total budget depending on whose figures are consulted. The CAP is supposed to ensure that the food supply is guaranteed and at prices feasible for its production. However, this system comprises payments based on the size of land itself rather than that of its output, which means that larger farming corporations and rich owners of vast estates (including our monarchy) receive more per tonne of produce than smaller independent farmers. Excesses, kept out of the EU market so as not to lower prices, are often dumped in developing countries, undermining native farmers. While this is a must-have for France (the biggest beneficiary), the UK claims its rebate based on the fact that it is effectively subsidising the French agriculture industry. This rebate, in turn, is a cause of considerable resentment.
This is not the only source of resentment, though. Britain’s general sense of exceptionalism when it comes to its part in the EU, typified by David Cameron’s reform deal, only serves to add to this. Rhetoric proclaiming proudly that this deal sets the UK apart from the rest surely does nothing to endear us to other member states, and certainly doesn’t portray us as enthusiastic about cooperation. Furthermore, the UK is widely seen as something of a cafeteria participant, opting into any profitable aspects and turning its nose up at less beneficial elements. With this attitude, then, it is unlikely that the UK will be able to attempt to initiate any significant reforms of the institution and receive anything other than a lukewarm response from other members. However, it is unlikely that the UK public and political establishment will change on this front. Even the most enthusiastic proponent of Britain’s membership of the EU would struggle to believe with much sincerity that the UK should adopt the Euro, for example, and while other members are happy to ease into ever closer union (Germany is actually bound by her constitution to achieve this), it seems unlikely that the same willingness will be harboured in the UK for the foreseeable future.
This traditional reluctance on the part of the British to embrace the EU may be explained in part by the considerable French influence on the institution. Having positioned herself at its heart from the very beginning, France has been able to create and safeguard such aspects as the aforementioned CAP and the headquarters at Strasbourg (ever the source of ‘roaming-circus’ criticism on these shores), and has previously exercised its veto under Charles de Gaulle to block the UK’s entry, while more recently opposing that of Turkey (though the French haven’t been alone in this). It is fair to say that the EU has been, and continues to be, a key apparatus in France’s foreign policy, a success for the traditional Gaullists. It would delight the Gaullists no end if a strong Europe, with France at its forefront, were to form a counterbalance to US and Russian power on the world stage.
At this point I should declare my personal thoughts on this. I can’t help but admire the French desire to lead from the front on her own terms whilst protecting and sharing her values and culture, especially when we on this side of the channel seem content to merely be a junior partner alongside the US on the world stage. I look at Germany, too, and see a country that has overcome a turbulent history to become an economic powerhouse and a leading ‘soft’ power. The UK, I feel, should share the ambition our two neighbours to be at the forefront of a credible force for good in the world. However, while our position within the EU remains complicated, I fear that this won’t come to fruition, as other members will remain uneasy about our seemingly determined reluctance. Had Britain have immersed itself enthusiastically into this project from its early beginnings, the EU would probably look considerably different today and we wouldn’t be having the great debate currently taking place.
I certainly don’t disregard the EU’s potential usefulness; it would be great to see the institution take a radical approach to energy supply, for example. The fundamentally flawed CAP should be significantly downgraded, with fiscal focus instead on investment in the supply of sustainable energy from mass solar farms in northern Africa. Energy harnessed would initially power the surrounding areas in the host and neighbouring African countries (at subsidised rates), with local people employed in their construction and maintenance. This would develop with a view to eventually powering southern Europe from these facilities once the sheer scale of that logistical headache has been resolved. The EU would be taking a lead in sustainable energy production whilst also aiding the development of LEDCs. Now all that might sound like fantasy but Germany, in collaboration with partners such as Siemens, is already undertaking this very venture in Morocco. In terms of persuading the EU to embark on such a project, it is possible that there may be some interest in France due to their status as a major player in power supply and their historical interest in the northern African region. However, how likely is it that they would support this at the expense of the CAP?
The aforementioned vision is just one (admitted idealistic) way that the EU could evolve for the better. When returning to pessimistic reality, though, it is hard to see how the UK could possibly initiate significant change to suit either ourselves or the general interest in an institution of which the other members – at best – aren’t convinced by our commitment and – at worst – harbour resentment towards us. Regardless, these conditions cannot be healthy in any partnership. If the UK is to have a mutually prosperous relationship with Europe, then, perhaps it is better if we hone this from outside the EU. Other European nations might feel more amicable towards us when we aren’t obstructing and sneering at their grand project. The general vision in the minds of those keen to leave the EU of what this new relationship with Europe might look like is predominantly full of hypotheticals right now, but relations that are nevertheless more friendly can only be good. Outside of EU frameworks, the UK and France currently work closely together in the maintenance of their military capacities, and even share some apparatus in an effort to cut costs. There is no reason why this partnership, to name just one example, can’t continue if the UK is outside the EU. To draw all this to a close, then, I would argue that Britain might enjoy stronger, friendlier relations with Europe if it were to leave the EU, mad as that may seem on the face of it. And it would perhaps be in our interest to develop closer friendships with our European neighbours, and take a step back from a ‘special relationship’ towards which our other half is seemingly becoming increasingly apathetic.