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Britain can lead Europe if it stays in EU

by Hugo Dixon | 08.05.2016

The Leave camp says Britain will be treated with contempt if we vote to remain in the EU. The other countries will know our will to resist their devilish ways is broken. They will have us over a barrel and beat us into a pulp.

This prediction couldn’t be further from the truth. If we vote to stay in the EU, we will be in an excellent position to shape Europe’s agenda.

As we celebrate VE Day today, we need to remember how Britain has so often provided leadership in Europe. But, in recent years, we have not seized the agenda because we’ve had one eye on the exit door.

After June 23 – if we vote to stay in – we need to fight to make Europe better. The other countries will welcome our engagement with open arms, as long as we provide leadership for the whole of Europe rather than seek special deals that work only for us.

Guiding us should be the vision for Europe set out in the preamble and first few articles of the EU Treaty. It stresses our inalienable human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law. It sets a goal of peace and promises a foreign policy based on our values as well as our interests. It calls for the strengthening of our economies, sustainable development and the promotion of well-being. It advocates efficient institutions and decisions that are taken as closely as possible to the citizen.

It would be hard to improve on these goals. The challenge is to achieve them.

The record’s not bad. The EU has largely secured peace, freedom and the rule of law for 500 million people. It has extended the boundaries of democracy to encompass previously fascist countries in southern Europe and communist ones in the east. It has taken the lead in fighting global warming. And the single market has strengthened the European economy.

But there are gaps between vision and reality. The most glaring are in the areas where Britain is not involved. Large parts of Europe weren’t ready for a single currency and, as a result, are suffering from high youth unemployment. Meanwhile, the border-free Schengen Area is creaking under the strains of the refugee crisis.

There are also gaps in those areas that directly concern Britain. The single market has holes. The EU has done too little to foster stability on its doorstep, especially in north Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine. Sometimes its foreign policy – for example, muting its criticism of Turkey’s crackdown on free speech in its desperation to persuade Ankara to stem the flow of migrants to Greece – lacks principle. And its institutions can be remote and bureaucratic.

These are not just criticisms of others. They are criticisms of ourselves. After all, we are one of the EU’s most influential members. In the areas that most concern us – the single market and foreign policy – we are well placed to provide leadership, if only we take it.

Britain is the EU’s second-largest economy. We have sophisticated armed forces with nuclear capability, centuries of diplomatic expertise, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a special relationship with America. These are assets that can be deployed to make Europe economically and politically more effective.

From June 24, if we vote to remain in the EU, we should focus on three broad priorities: promoting prosperity, calming nearby trouble spots and improving the EU’s accountability.

First, we should complete the single market, so that it fulfils its potential as a source of wealth creation. This means extending it so it covers the digital economy, services, energy and capital markets. Britain is a leader in all these areas. But, as things stand, Europe’s fragmented market means that our tech companies, for example, cannot gain the scale to compete with the likes of Facebook or Google.

We should also secure balanced and fair free trade deals with other parts of the world, especially America, China, India and Japan.

A more productive economy would be better for everybody, not just Britain. It would even help the euro zone countries manage their crisis.

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Second, we should coordinate our foreign policy in the Middle East, north Africa and Russia. Britain, along with every other EU country, retains the freedom to act alone. But we will usually be more powerful if we act with others.

One of the reasons the Anglo-French initiative to bomb Libya wasn’t successful was because many other EU countries were opposed. Equally, Angela Merkel mishandled the refugee crisis by unilaterally inviting Syrians to come to Germany rather than getting the EU to unite behind a common plan.

We also need to share information with our partners more effectively in order to fight terrorism. Among other things, this means interconnecting DNA, passenger travel and fingerprinting databases.

Greater stability in the countries closest to the EU’s borders would be better for all of us. It would especially help the members of Schengen, as it would reduce the flow of refugees.

Finally, we need to decentralise decisions wherever possible and make sure that the EU focuses on those areas where it can add real value. While common action is desirable on the single market, climate change and sanctions against Russia, elsewhere national action is preferable. We should therefore take seriously the mantra “Europe where necessary, national where possible”.

Such an action plan is not pie in the sky. The EU is already moving on all of these fronts. If Britain provides leadership, we have every chance of accelerating the progress and narrowing the gap between Europe’s vision and reality. It would be a political crime to squander this historic opportunity.

Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

Edited by Alan Wheatley

3 Responses to “Britain can lead Europe if it stays in EU”

  • I find your daily comments and analysis invaluable.
    One issue that might be of wide interest is the proportion of UK employment which is generated by non UK companies. This might be a more appreciated and persuasive point than simply pointing out that these, often very large, innovating companies are enthusiasts for Remain.

  • Can other EU governments combat opposition to the EU in their countries by pointing out the advantages of accepting British leadership?

  • “We have sophisticated armed forces with nuclear capability, centuries of diplomatic expertise, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a special relationship with America.” above.

    Jeremy Shapiro, a former presidential adviser who now works as Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the special relationship was “unrequited” and many US officials would make jokes about it behind the scenes.
    [Vickiie Oliphant in The Daily Express Tue, Oct 10, 2017 ]