At an awards ceremony in Oslo’s Grand Hotel today, the European Union has been given the Nobel Peace Prize on account of its efforts in promoting peace and human rights following the devastation of World War Two. While this accolade may be justified (the continent has suffered only one major conflict since 1945), the timing of this event could be considered inopportune. The EU is still very much in the grip of a financial crisis, with little consensus among member-states as to its resolution. Riots continue apace on the streets of Athens, the Greek government struggles to balance the books, Italy’s former Premier Silvio Berlusconi threatens to make an unwelcome comeback, causing chaos in the markets, while the overall picture in Europe is of a flat-lining economy, high unemployment and crippling debts.
Prime Minister David Cameron was notable by his absence from the awards ceremony, sending his deputy Nick Clegg in his stead. I would have loved to hear the exchange between the Liberal Democrat MP and the politicians who did attend on why the Etonian eschewed the event in favour of a Q & A with some journalists. I’m sure he provided an excuse that was sufficient to save face. Mr. Cameron also plans to draw up a referendum for the people of Britain on whether this nation should stay in the EU or withdraw. He has been frustratingly non-committal on his position on Europe up until now, but the noisily Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers have been pushing their leader towards making a stand in Brussels. It would appear that a ‘renegotiation’ of the UK’s position in Europe is on the cards.
The European Economic Community (as it was once known) was founded at the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The United Kingdom joined the EEC on January 1, 1973. The then Prime Minister Edward Heath was considered by some to be a traitor for putting his John Hancock on the dotted line. Since that time, the confederation has become the world’s largest trading bloc, with roughly 455 million citizens. In 1993, it established the Single Market and launched the Euro in 2002. Thus the Union has come a long way from the tiny post-war members club and its ambitions have grown correspondingly. It now faces its greatest challenge: the sovereign-debt crisis. After three years of austerity and bad news, is there any hope in sight? Is the EU doomed?
Here in Britain, there has never, at any time, been an abiding passion for European federalism amongst the general populace. Joe Public has always been wary of political union with our neighbours and the last few years have seen that lukewarm commitment plummet to an all-time nadir. Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party is having a field day, enjoying its greatest by-election result on November 30, while populist newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail are openly hostile to European integration. Feeling the pressure, Cameron has been playing to the crowd, waving his veto around like a meth-head with a gun. He’s not making any friends on the Continent and there is, in some circles, a sense of weary resignation that the UK is inching ever closer to the exit. It’s a question, they say, of when, not if.
I hope they’re wrong, because I believe that a secession from the EU, to whom half our exports go, would be bad for Britain and bad for Europe. Sceptics cite EFTA countries Norway and Switzerland as shining examples of nations who enjoy the fruits of trade, but without the tyrannical directives and red tape. Conveniently, they ignore the uncomfortable reality of the situation; namely, that these countries pay a high price for access to the Single Market and towards EU cohesion funds. Furthermore, Norway and Switzerland are smaller and comparatively richer nations, so any comparison with Britain’s situation is fraudulent. Moreover, EU members like Germany are hardly going to be thankful if Britain pulls out, so don’t expect a level playing field when it comes to new trade agreements. Consider this, too: how much influence would the UK have on the world stage as a political pariah? Could we have successfully imposed trade sanctions on Iran the way the EU did as a whole?
When I speak to my countrymen about this issue (not exactly light conversation, I know), they tell me that the British are Europe’s enemy, that Johnny Foreigner is out to get us. This is a paranoid delusion. Britain is a respected senior partner in the EU. Our economic liberalism and political clout have brought great benefits to many member-states; without us, Europe would become more protectionist and diplomatically weaker. In the age of the Global Village, we need to be part of a greater whole if we are to remain influential and competitive. There are too many emotive arguments and sound bites being thrown around in the Europe debate and not enough people are checking the facts. Europe is in crisis; would it not be better to help change her from within, rather than throw our toys out of the pram and storm off? Taking the latter option will not make us friends and has far too many risks attached. David Cameron must put Britain’s needs before those of his backbenchers. He can risk losing the next election, or he can risk the long-term prosperity of his people. Which is more important?
It doesn’t help my case when I read about the shameful level of spending in Brussels at a time when belt-tightening should apply to those at the top as well as the ordinary man. Did the awards ceremony have to be so lavish? Was it necessary to spend €55 million on a museum? I want to see the EU move away from profligacy and high-minded social engineering. I want to see some thorough audits, a purge of the parasites riding the gravy train and a greater focus on making the continent financially solvent again. I don’t want this great civilisation to degenerate into a squabbling jigsaw of backwater states. The Union is about free trade, free movement of its peoples, peace and prosperity. By sitting down at the negotiating table and learning to compromise along with the other members, Britain can help turn the EU into something so much better. The Europhiles must, for the sake of our future generations, make their voices heard. They must not allow the tabloids to have the final say on this. Logic and reason must prevail; the British public deserve that much. It’s time to make the case for Europe.