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We must stop making every discussion about the EU an in/out choice

by David Hannay | 23.06.2016

For six months now we have been immersed in a national debate about the EU that has largely reduced Britain’s membership to a binary choice: are we in or out?

It is time we asked ourselves whether this is a sensible way to conduct the discussion of policy options within a complex framework which contains many conflicting considerations. If we do vote to remain in the EU, we should take the opportunity to move away from a polarised, raucous clash of absolutes and try instead to conduct a civilised, tolerant examination of the policy alternatives within the EU. And should we not also widen that debate to include our fellow members of the EU, who, let us not forget, have their own legitimate views on what the EU should be doing?

That, after all, is the way that parliamentary democracies conduct their national affairs, year in and year out. We debate issues such as taxes and spending, the future of the NHS and the deployment of our armed forces without feeling the constant need to question the constitutional framework within which we make those political choices. Just because a proposal comes forward from the EU that we do not like, it is not necessary to challenge the whole basis of our membership. Indeed, it is often counterproductive. Rather, we should set about finding like-minded member states that would help us to modify the proposal until it is consistent with our interests, or we should block it. And we will be more likely to succeed in this quest if we do not go back every time to first principles about the nature and democratic legitimacy of the EU’s institutions.

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What would we gain by conducting the dialogue with our partners and with the Commission and the European Parliament in that way? A lot, I would suggest. Britain has always been, and will remain, a highly influential member state and an essential player in foreign and security policy. If we can keep our economy in the front rank, our voice will be all the louder. If the Conservatives in the European Parliament can develop a closer working relationship with the European People’s Party, the centre-right group which is the largest in Strasbourg, we could be even more influential.

Do we risk anything by pursuing a more consensual approach towards shaping policy within the EU? I do not believe so. We cannot be compelled against our will to accept any modification to our opt-outs from the euro and Schengen, nor to our budget rebate. We are not required to accept a commitment to “ever-closer union” or to move towards a political union. And, should the issue arise of transferring more powers from Westminster to Brussels, our own 2011 Referendum Act would necessarily trigger a referendum. That makes the chance of the British government of the day contemplating such a step vanishingly small. The idea that we could be manoeuvred into accepting a European army or the accession of a member state against our wishes is a fantasy.

So let’s get off on a new foot after the bruising experience of the referendum. It would be in our interest to do so. Pragmatism is meant to be one of our national virtues. We should try practising it.


Edited by Alan Wheatley

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