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Au Revoir, Europe: What If Britain Left the EU?, By David Charter
Brutally lucid, this road-map for a UK exit from the Union should sharpen every political mind
Friday 25 January 2013
Even today a lazy orthodoxy dominates centre-left political thinking on Europe. We assumed that the Tory European interregnum - the gap between bouts of internal Euro convulsion - wouldn't last long. In fact, it lasted six years. David Cameron played the Eurosceptic to win the crown; quitting the European People's Party group in the European parliament sent a clear signal to traditionalists. Yet on gaining the top job, he embraced centre-ground modernisation intent on parking the "nasty party" tag, including its Euroscepticism.
We now cosily assume that this phase ended on 24 October 2011 when 81 Tory MPs rebelled in Parliament in favour of a "people's plebiscite" on Europe. A few weeks later, Cameron stumbled into his veto against the Franco-German blueprint for a two-speed single currency. Full-throttle rewind to right-wing scepticism was the new order of the day - a sign of Cameron's weakness in his party, as captive to the old guard. The old guard is also the new guard; there is no "pro-European" Conservative tradition to speak of anymore.
Tory modernisation has hit the wall. Cameron is trapped; content to play the same old songs, get through the day and await some orderly transition to Boris or Gove. We witness his speech on Europe this week, promising a referendum by 2017, and conclude that the PM is preoccupied with internal appeasement.
Comfortable liberal-left orthodoxy might also tell us that Cameron and his party are on the wrong side of history and consumed by a cancerous internal Euro-savagery. Divisions over the EU brought down Thatcher and Major, alienated potential voters and so created space for our own "one nation" story of patriotic self-interest.
So far, so conventional. The Tory travails are good for us. I pretty much sign up to these conventions. But let's pause and think this through a little. Is it possible that we have fundamentally misread this one? David Charter's book Au Revoir, Europe contests the fundamentals of mainstream centre-left European thinking. What if in 2013 - during the 40 anniversary of the UK joining the European club - we are inexorably heading out? De Gaulle stalled our application for some 12 years, the "joining phase". In so doing he nailed down the Common Agricultural Policy architecture and a blueprint for common fisheries which loaded the dice against the UK.
From 1973, we witnessed an "integration phase" of building the single market. This ended with the collision between Thatcher and Delors, the post-ERM fallout and the Maastricht treaty. While this period saw the creation of the European Union, British opt-outs and the Euro, it also signalled growing divergence and set in train the festering "alienation phase", even under New Labour.
Now we find ourselves forced toward the exit door as, driven by crisis, economic and institutional reforms build a "real European Union" anchored around a Euro core. Britain's options shrink between a "second-tier" membership or a "Brexit". Cameron ratchets up the possibility of the latter with talk of an undeliverable repatriation of powers. Why might he do this?
Charter – European correspondent of The Times – confronts these issues with quite remarkable prescience. His analysis of the gravitational pull in each of the main political parties is spot-on. Through a careful dissection of what went wrong, he asks how and when we might exit, and what the shake-down might look like. In short, for him, the roof will not fall in.
The origins of our gradual exit are found in the irreconcilable tension between Edward Heath's foolish promise of no consequential loss of sovereignty and Jean Monnet's belief in "neofunctionalism" - ever-more sharing of powers, given the benefits of such transfers. Pro-Europeans never recovered from this basic conceit. Incrementally, this forged a "British trajectory defined by opposition and exceptionalism".
It is this weaving-together of the original tensions around sovereignty and the moves toward referenda that sharpen Charter's belief in inevitable exit. He posits that the end-game will be played out with the prospect of a new treaty. Cameron's holding pattern is of repatriation, and membership of an outer tier. The "Fresh Start" group of Tory MPs assumes a looser renegotiation given a new treaty. Charter studies areas ripe for such reform and the stumbling-blocks: structural funds, financial services, social and employment law, legal jurisdiction and criminal law.
There appears little or no chance: recent history does not bode well while our isolationist stance means we have no allies. So, he tacitly suggests, is not the real agenda for the Fresh Start group, with their impossibilist demands, to act as a Trojan horse for eventual exit? Is this the real sub-text to Cameron's speech? Failure to repatriate will intensify the grounds for divorce through growing populist disquiet.
Having carefully raised problems with alternative models that forestall full withdrawal - such as the Norwegian or Swiss options - the author then offers an insightful sectoral analysis of the economic implications of withdrawal, alongside the political forces that could precipitate precisely this conclusion.
The last chapter tracks back from a hypothetical British application in 2023 to join NAFTA, the North American free trade agreement. It charts the critical path to exit following the 2017 referendum driven by a 2015 Tory manifesto commitment, grudgingly matched by Labour. Election defeat did for Cameron. The new Leader of the Opposition – B Johnson - rode the "no" vote. The 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent victory of the "outers" broke the back of the Labour government. Britain's subsequent free-trade agreement with Brussels took 18 months to deliver while Parliament struggled with the additional workload in trade, agriculture, fisheries and the like. The UK and Brussels muddled along. Paradoxically, the zero-sum economic environment ensured that they were to stay closely intertwined, irrespective of the referendum outcome.
This is a shockingly coherent book. It ascribes a logic to what, from the outside at least, appears degenerative Tory thinking. For pro- Europeans - about whom the author states "only the scale of their defeat remains to be settled" – it implies that with Cameron's speech, we have begun another interregnum leading to the 2017 referendum. The honest assessment is that the mainstream of the Conservative Party want out. We now have under five years to rebuild a pro-European case from first principles. This book is a brutal contribution to a consideration of the options that this country now faces.
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