Left outside the door of the European Union

Geraint Talfan Davies says we must end the UK’s determination to be the awkward squad

European summits are often over-dramatised by the UK’s press. There is the implication of a superlative in the very word ‘summit’, the ceremonial greeting of heads of state, the motorcades, the tension of negotiation, deals done at the dead of night by tired ministers and officials. All this is usually accompanied by a last minute resolution of the seemingly irreconcilable, followed by spinning press conferences. But it would be hard to level the charge of over-dramatisation on this occasion.

At stake was the future of the world economy, and, potentially, the most radical peaceful change in the governance of Europe since the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. And it would be hard not to be intensely disappointed at the outcome, on no less than four counts:

  • The continued lack of decisive steps to shore up the continent’s finances in the short term, including Germany’s continued unwillingness to allow full-scale intervention by the European Central Bank, and the bank’s own agreement with that line.
  • The absence of a plan to encourage economic growth across Europe, to accompany greater rigour in the management of national finances.
  • The prospect of new tougher rules for eurozone countries that will make it very difficult to provide such a growth stimulus in future.
  • Britain’s obvious and total isolation, on grounds – defence of the City of London – that look straightforward but become more flimsy the more they are examined.

Such reasons for gloom are only compounded by the smug pleasure of euro-sceptic politicians and press, and the dispirited reaction of those who have supported the European project. The former salivate at the prospect of the UK’s departure from Europe, the latter bite their nails as they worry that the departure is now more possible.

It is understandable that some of our exasperated European partners should breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of seeing their difficult neighbour pack up and go. For too long we have been Europe’s awkward squad. In the circumstances, we should not be surprised that the service upon the UK – self-service is more accurate – of a kind of national ASBO might seem, to many, to be overdue.

As Nye Bevan said at the thought of a Labour conference contriving to send a British Foreign Secretary ‘naked into the conference chamber’: “And you call that statesmanship. I call it an emotional spasm.” What would he have said if the Foreign Secretary was left outside the door?

David Cameron’s battle was lost long before he reached Brussels. As was pointed out at a conference in Cardiff, and reported here last week, countries that want the empathy of others in moments of difficulty have to build up a credit balance in the good times – a kind of Keynesianism of manners rather than money. But instead the Prime Minister has both abandoned potential mainstream allies in European centre-right parties, and preferred to lecture the eurozone from a distance.

Yet what right have we to do so? A country that sees ‘muddling through’ as a virtue, and thinks intellectual coherence in public affairs an alien continental habit, is hardly in a position to criticise the rest of Europe for insufficient rigour in thinking through the Euro issue. A country that, notwithstanding devolution, has embodied a mindset more centralised even than France, is hardly in a position to lecture other countries on the virtues of subsidiarity and self-determination.

In all our time in, first, the EEC and then the EU we have given the impression of being reluctant members of the club. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were the first to attempt renegotiation, in order to justify a referendum that would salve Labour’s divisions. Margaret Thatcher was even more bullish, but successful, in renegotiation, while giving succour to the Eurosceptics in her own party who attempted to skewer John Major. Even David Cameron this weekend has spoken about “the bits of Europe that suit Britain”, as if this were an a la carte restaurant, preferably serving very small portions.

In his magisterial survey of Britain’s relationship with Europe – This Blessed Plot – the late Hugo Young contrasted the post-war makers of the new Europe, who saw their creation as a triumph, with a very different British mindset:

“For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climactic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe. This has been integral in the national psyche, perhaps only half articulated since 1973. The sense of the Community as a place of British failure – proof of Britain’s failed independence, site of her failed domination…”

And this mentality has been nurtured, often mendaciously, by large sections of the press who have sustained a barrage of emotional criticism of European institutions, with a constant implication of British superiority. It has polluted a legitimate debate. Only a few weeks ago, at an IWA conference on regeneration a questioner from the floor bemoaned the inability of some local firms to win contracts, casually blaming it all on Brussels, as if this were an incontrovertible truth. Expert speakers on the panel reminded him that the problem lay as much with the actions of Welsh civil servants and their legal advisers as with anything emanating from the EU.

Beyond Wales the little Englander mentality in full spate is not a pretty sight. It is backward looking. It is often as much anti-government as anti-Europe, a rejection of European social democracy. It is a distorted view of the world and a distorted view of the UK’s clout within it. Even financial commentators are recognising that the British veto has not even guaranteed the very security for the City of London that it was designed to achieve.

Of course, the institutions of the EU are far from perfect – as are our own. When he was a EU commissioner Neil Kinnock struggled hard for internal reform, but had to leave much unfinished business. However, these shortcomings, like those of any human institution, do not necessarily undermine the fundamental arguments for the EU’s existence. These include it being a guarantor of European peace, an immense single market that contributes to growth, European-wide regulation that levels playing fields and helps both consumers and citizens. In short, the European Union provides a necessary pooling of sovereignty that allows us to be more effective in a globalised world.

These powerful fundamentals will still be valid arguments for close European cooperation in Europe whether the Euro survives or not. The potential for calamity is dangerously large. Wales, at the wrong end of economic league tables, has powerful additional reasons for wanting the understanding of Europe. It will be interesting to see how the report of Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into inward investment takes account of our new situation. In Scotland it will be surprising if Alex Salmond does not find a way of playing the debacle to his advantage.

The consequences of the last few days are unpredictable, both for the 17 countries in the eurozone and all 27 members of the EU. Whatever happens Britain must remain at the conference table. We will still need empathic European friends, not merely disillusioned colleagues. We will still need to be influential and to be seen to be influential in Europe by the rest of the world. Otherwise every country of the UK is diminished.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy