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Europe is the natural place for the UK to be

by Michael Prest | 20.05.2016

In his frank valedictory despatch from the UK’s Paris embassy in 1979, the retiring ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson observed: “For long we underestimated the economic progress of our European neighbours and for even longer we overestimated our own strength and influence in relation to them”. The UK was then widely seen as the sick man of Europe. Its political power was declining and countries such as France and Germany had outstripped the UK economically since the foundation of the Common Market in 1957.

Some circumstances have certainly changed since the 1970s. The UK economy is healthier than in 1975, when the last EU referendum was held. After almost five decades of membership, we have become a highly influential EU member. Although they sometimes find the UK exasperating, our EU neighbours very much want us to stay in the union. Nobody is saying “non”.

But in some important respects the circumstances about which Sir Nicholas wrote have not changed. Those circumstances are central to the case for remaining in the EU. At the heart of the referendum debate is the UK’s place in the world. With whom do we ally, and in what way, to fortify our friends and confound our foes?

A fundamental principle of UK foreign policy for centuries has been to prevent one power dominating Europe by force. Geography alone made the principle imperative. For a long time the UK was rich and powerful enough to hold the balance of power in Europe, while protecting its extensive political and commercial interests outside Europe.

But the UK’s relative decline in the post-war years rendered this semi-detached view of Europe obsolete. Yet, even as the empire was disintegrating, our eyes remained fixed on shores very distant from Europe. We exaggerated our strength and were slow to see the benefits of full participation in the new Europe.

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It seems clear now, however, that EU membership has magnified the UK’s standing beyond what it might have been outside the EU. As new powers emerge, our relative decline in the world continues. Power is shifting. A rising nation such as China has much less in common with the UK than did the US when it assumed leadership of the western world after 1945. An assertive Russia seeks to divide and weaken Europe. A once prostrate Germany has reunited and is Europe’s most powerful economy.

Sir Nicholas – who was later ambassador in Washington – was concerned in 1979 that the “special relationship” so central to UK foreign policy was of declining importance to the US. President Obama recently disabused those who clung to the belief that the relationship was still truly “special”. Instead, he and many of our friends believe that UK influence from the inside is vital for maintaining the desired balance of power in a Europe whose sovereign member countries have agreed to come together peacefully – the very opposite of hyperbolic comparisons with Hitler.

Influencing from within is also the most effective way to promote another central UK foreign policy – to strengthen relationships based on shared values, notably democracy, freedom, human rights, equality and the rule of law. These values are mainly European in origin and are the EU’s moral core. The UK upholds these values, even gave birth to some of them. We are an integral part of the European tradition. Europe’s values are our values. Our deeply entwined involvement with Europe today, which is much more than a matter of geography, makes it hard to imagine national policy echoing Labour’s national executive committee in 1950, which Sir Nicholas summarized thus: “In every respect, except distance, we in Britain are closer to our kinsmen in Australia and New Zealand on the far side of the world than we are to Europe”.

Far from the UK’s comparative economic health and political traditions being reasons to leave the EU now, they are more than ever reasons to stay in. As Sir Nicholas wrote: “Creating something quite new and ambitious in international affairs, an organization embracing different peoples of varying languages and traditions…may call for the sort of originality of political thought in foreign affairs that we contributed in earlier times to the theory of government.”

Our national interest lies in continued EU membership, not in siren calls to “take back control”.

Edited by Geert Linnebank

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2 Responses to “Europe is the natural place for the UK to be”

  • I shall be looking forward to any EU attempts to “strengthen relationships based on shared values, notably democracy, freedom, human rights, equality and the rule of law.” In the article “Moscow’s Trojan Horse” in Foreign Affairs of 6th of August 2014 by Jan-Werner Müller, the author states that:”… Orban has taken a leading role in a process of political backsliding in eastern Europe that seemed unimaginable when the majority of countries in the region joined the EU in 2004. Since the election victory of his Fidesz party in 2010, Orban has restricted media freedoms, systematically dismantled checks and balances, and delivered much of the economy to Fidesz-friendly oligarchs. In April, he won another term in office in an election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called “free, but not fair.”