(first published in the European Council on Foreign Relations blog)
The closer europhobes think Britain is getting to an EU exit the bigger the body of evidence and the number of people advising against it becomes.
You cannot blame them for feeling the ground disappearing under their feet. For far too long they claimed that the belief that Britain must remain firmly committed to its membership of the EU was limited among eurofanatics/eurofederalists/traitors (delete as appropriate).
But the debate is shifting rapidly and Europhobes are running out of arguments fast. Central to their discourse has been the argument that membership of the EU harms British business. But all of the sudden business is stepping forward en mass to argue that Britain’s future and commercial interests lay within the European Union.
Lord Carr, the President of the CBI, recently said “Europe is the bedrock of our international trade. It should be viewed as the launch-pad from which our global trade can expand not the landmass from which we retreat. And if we are to avoid an exit vote in any referendum it is essential that the voice of British business is loud and clear in extolling the virtues of future engagement not as a reluctant participant but as the lynchpin of our wider global trade ambitions.
He is not the only one feeling that way. Richard Branson expressed a similar sentiment in his new year’s blog. He said “The UK must not become a peripheral country on the edge of Europe. This will be damaging to long-term prospects of British business and also in the country’s ability to attract new international companies to set up and employ people in the country.”
The financial services industry, through TheCityUK, the City’s lobby group, has also been making some powerful pro-membership statements. Their Chairman said in a speech late last year “It is really poppycock to believe that the City can survive in its present form if it is not an integral part of the European financial services framework.” He added, “We know that London benefits from attracting firms that want easy access to the Single Market. Those firms arrive here and create jobs across the UK as their operations develop.”
They all came together and were joined by many others to sign a letter to the Financial Times arguing in favour of continuing and complete membership of the EU and against attempts to re-negotiate a minimalistic, and as a result ineffectual, relationship with our European partners.
But that is not the only shift under the ground of Europhobes’ thesis against EU membership. They have been arguing that Britain does not need the EU because it has the “special relationship” to fall back to. But it looks like that the special relationship will not be that “special” if Britain was to leave the EU. Before Christmas it was leaked by the White House that, in a conversation with David Cameron, US President Barack Obama raised the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU. It was reported that the White House is baffled by notions entertained by some Europhobes that the “special relationship” would be strengthened if Britain was to leave the EU. Their argument being that Britain has more gravitas, and as a result is a more valuable ally to the US, as a full member of the EU. Such statements were coupled by a rare public intervention from a senior US official. Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary for European affairs in the State Department, said while on a trip to London, “We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.” An unambiguous indication of US beliefs that Britain is of little use to them as a small island adrift in the middle of the Atlantic.
These voices from the business community and across Atlantic are coming to join Britain’s European partners who for a while now have been advising against tendencies of isolationism and nebulous concepts of renegotiating the UK’s membership of the EU. Ireland, one of Britain’s closest allies, recently took over the Presidency of the EU Council and its Prime Minister, Mr Enda Kenny, was quick to stress that he does not expect the re-opening of EU Treaties just to suit a certain Member State. He was joined by his Deputy Prime Minister who argued that “27 or 28 different categories of membership won’t work” and that terms of membership have to be the same for all EU member states. They are not the only ones who think so. Mr Radek Sikorski, the Prime Minister of Poland, one of the most successful EU Member States and a long standing UK ally, highlighted the benefits of EU membership and warned in a speech delivered in Oxford that the UK should not expect to be successful if it tried to negotiate a special kind of EU membership for itself. He went even further to outline that the UK would lose massively if it was to leave the EU altogether. Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s influential Finance Minister, was even more explicit in his warning. He said that even though he wanted Britain to remain in the EU, it should not think that it will be able to blackmail its partners in an effort to change EU Treaties and abandon its membership commitments.
So Europhobes are finding themselves deprived of one more argument, that we can take advantage of the process of EU reform by threatening our way towards a new settlement, one where Britain can reap all the benefits of EU membership but opt-out of all its responsibilities. An ill-advised and clearly not available strategy.
So Europhobes cling on to the one thing they have left. They quote opinion polls that seem to show that a majority of the British people would like the UK to leave the EU. Not surprisingly, after decades of anti-EU bias in the political discourse and across the tabloid press, the British people have only had the opportunity to listen the euromyth-infused anti-EU arguments. As a result their attitude towards EU membership is one-dimensional. But with more and more voices speaking out and explaining the benefits of EU membership and the dangers of an EU exit, public opinion will finally be objectively informed about what it really means to be a member of the EU.
The tide is shifting and with it will public attitudes towards the EU. There is a silent majority in Britain, eurosceptic because it never heard the other side of the argument, which is keen to finally listen to and be part of an honest, fact-based, holistic conversation on Britain’s membership of the EU. The facts are on the side of the pro-membership camp and so is business, trade unions, academia and Britain’s European and global partners. It is about time Europhobes listen to everyone’s advice and accept that a strong, confident Britain belongs in and stands to benefit from a strong, confident EU.
Petros Fassoulas, Chairman of the European Movement UK