“The EU has provided us with the best Europe we’ve ever had”

That was the claim in this very interesting essay by Robert Cooper – a visiting professor at the London School of Economic and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations – in last week’s New Statesman. In it, he mounts a staunch defence of parliamentary democracy as the best way of deciding such matters rather than referendums:

The sovereignty of parliament is a good principle because it allows maximum space for political decision-making and maximum opportunity for debate on issues that are always complex.

It was his three reasons for continuing to support British membership of the EU which caught my eye and I thought worth highlighting…

In broad terms there are three ways of looking at the EU. On a practical level, the main product of the EU is regulation. There is good regulation and bad regulation; but there is no escape. No one is going to buy British products that do not meet inter­national standards. Those standards are set mostly by the EU or the US. If the UK wants to be at the table when the standards are set it has to belong to the EU; otherwise it will have to follow regulations that someone else has made.

From the point of view of realpolitik, which is the usual British way of thinking about foreign policy, a permanent coalition of European states to which we did not belong is the nightmare of British policymakers through all the ages, as I think Douglas Hurd once said. Happily, today this would not be a coalition that would threaten British security, but it might be tempted from time to time to take economic advantage of the UK’s absence to organise things in ways that suited their interests and not ours. In fact, it would be a surprise if it didn’t. Ask Norway; or look at how the EU developed in Britain’s absence from 1956 to 1973.

Or, if you believe (as I do) that international politics does not always have to be about the balance of power, the EU (with its twin, Nato) is, for all its faults, a kind of political miracle: the most successful collaboration among sovereign states ever achieved. In spite of the mess of the euro, it is still admired and imitated on other continents. This is the best Europe we have ever had; and Britain, as an influential member, has been a force for good in it. Both altruism and self-interest tell us to remain.

These three perspectives – which are not contradictory – all point to one conclusion. Much in the EU needs to be fixed. With 28 sovereign states around the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. But the euro crisis has brought a more sober mood and the advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.

There could not be a better moment to work with others for a programme of reform. That would make sense. A referendum makes none.

It’s well worth reading Robert Cooper’s article in full here.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Paul in Twickenham 18th Jan '14 - 6:34pm

    What the Euro crisis has brought into sharp relief is that you cannot have monetary union without also having a transfer union, and a transfer union means a common fiscal policy. For the Euro to survive the Germans, Finns and Dutch must grit their teeth and agree to hand over their hard-earned Euros to the Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese.

    Even the descent into deflation that is now affecting the core has done nothing to dull the ardour of many in Brussels for the Euro, and the hiatus in the crisis caused by the markets’ blind faith in the abilities of Sig. Draghi has convinced them that – somehow – everything will turn out all right, which is a triumph of wishful thinking over arithmetic.

    Is Professor Cooper proposing the breakup of the Euro and the re-emergence of national currencies, together with a return to something more like the Common Market? I would be very happy with that, but suspect that Prof. Cooper’s claim that advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed is wildly off the mark and that cans will continue to be kicked down roads in an effort to stave off the fateful day when a politician in Berlin has to stand before a TV camera and say to the German people “we’re sending your tax Euros to pay for unemployment benefit in Santorini”.

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jan '14 - 7:36pm

    An excellent comment by Paul, with which I am in full agreement.

  • Quote:
    ‘With 28 sovereign states around the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. But the euro crisis has brought a more sober mood and the advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.’

    I think that most people now recognise that monetary union requires that there should be political union too. Otherwise we end up with the growing pains that we have witnessed in Greece, Spain, etc. So we have to strive for political union.

    Some have the idea of a two speed Europe, in a way to decouple the economy of Germany from the other slower economies. I am not quite clear whether those who propose this have thought it through or not. Does it therefore need to have two different currencies, say EuroA and EuroB?

    Could the idea of two speed zones be extended, to take into account of other nuances, such as eastern Europe, Germany and north, France + central + UK, PIGS. That is four zones. Perhaps each zone could have its own parliament too? Given that there is pressure naturally for a multi-speed Europe, and given also that there should be no monetary union without political union, does this admittedly strange concept have some merit? The four parliaments would be subservient to the central decision makers in Brussels of course.

    ‘advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.’ Indeed so, should we perhaps contemplate a modicum of dis-integration in order to cement the progress made so far, with the longer term aim of re-integration?

    Note that I have the habit of coming up with apparently whacky ideas, which then I am moderately often proven to be correct. Sufficiently often to make it worthwhile offering them for discussion.

  • The main reason we have General Elections is to choose a national government. They are not fundamentally about “Europe”.

    “Europe” is only one of many grounds to cast a vote for one party or the other at a general election. When casting one’s vote, one has to balance one’s choice with all the competing domestic policies on offer in each party’s manifesto. For example, one might choose to vote Tory because one has strong views in favour of foxhunting, or might choose to vote Labour or Lib Dem because one is against it. In this simplistic example, one makes a clear choice as to how one feels about each party’s policies on the specific issue of foxhunting and votes accordingly.

    However, how does one vote if all the main political parties want to stay in the EU but one does not agree with any of them? One votes for the “least worst” option and then spends yet another five years complaining about “Europe”.

    Surely, where an issue is as controversial and emotive as “Europe” and has important constitutional implications too, it makes sense to take it out of the normal round of domestic politics and trust the electorate to have their say. By giving them an explicit referendum, they will accept the result and I therefore think doing that is the only way to halt the endless debate about our being in or out of “Europe”.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Jan '14 - 2:31pm

    if we are going to use the european elections as a proxy for the big question on europe itself (and britain’s place within it), then i presume you are content to treat the british proportion of that vote as the valid indicator, and not the broader eurorphile/eurosceptic trend across europe itself?

    i only ask as the rough breakdown is likely to be:
    27% = exit (ukip)
    18% = reform or exit (tory)
    22.5% = ambivalent (labour)
    8% = more integration (lib-dem)

  • After leading the defeat of Nazism in the Second World War the UK was in pole position to lead the new converging Europe which Churchill had eloquently predicted. We failed to do so and have played catch-up ever since. Nevertheless the actions of the statesmen who at least got us on to the playing field, won the referendum in 1973 and worked constructively with our European partners largely saved the situation. Then came John Major who can now be seen to have played a brilliant hand at Maastricht in keeping us out of the common currency, an opt-out that will last for as long as the UK parliament and people decide to maintain it. There is no question of our being forced into the Euro by anyone outside our shores.

    The EU as it now stands, far bigger than ever envisaged – and rightly so in bringing towards freedom and prosperity so many countries seemingly irretrievably buried in the Soviet Union – undoubtedly needs reform. I know no-one who denies this. A UK playing its proper international role can be a leading player in that reform process. It will clearly take time and while a second referendum is probably now inevitable it would be foolish to lay down absolute commitment to a date before the end of 2017.

    In the meantime the UK have a remarkably advantageous situation –
    1. Total and unquestioned access to the vast single market – probably about to be greatly advanced by completion of the EU/US deal. As Robert Cooper says anyone outside that single market will have to comply with its rules in order to gain any sort of access in any case.
    2. Secure retention – and no doubt further growth – of the highly important industries set up here by foreign entrepreneurs in order to supply the EU market from within. Do not shrug off warnings about this from Nissan, Ford, Goldman Sachs and others.
    3. The freedom to retain our own currency, including setting our own interest rates etc.

    Only a knuckle-headed degree of insularity could prompt anyone to turn down a deal like that.

  • Sorry , I should have said the 1975 referendum – confirming the decision to join in 1973.

  • @Denis “the actions of the statesmen who at least got us on to the playing field, won the referendum in 1975”

    An interesting historical fact is that the Conservative PM, Edward Heath signed the Treaty of Accession on 1 January 1973 without calling a referendum. At that time, Labour was predominantly anti-Common Market and not happy with Heath taking the country into the Common Market. Labour won the next general Election. The “statesman” in 1975 who gave us the referendum was Heath’s successor; Harold Wilson. Many on the Labour side campaigned against remaining in the Common Market. However, the yes vote won in 1975 but Labour remained officially anti-Common Market until Neil Kinnock became leader and reversed that policy.

  • Ukraine is a case in point for those that say representative democracy is the way forward, instead of direct democracy such as referendum.
    If you believe in representative democracy, you must condemn the Ukraine rioters that are against (their representative government !), taking Ukraine in the Russian direction rather than Europe. You can’t have it both ways.
    A referendum on the Russia / EU issue would solve the Ukraine problem.
    A referendum on the in/out of U issue would solve the British problem.
    The value of the EU is a moot point. And each side believes they are correct. Intractably so. A referendum gives the people their say (finally!). It’s that simple.

  • Alex Macfie 20th Jan '14 - 1:44pm

    @George Potter, @Theresa-1

    “Europe is a matter too important to be bound up as a side-effect of general elections in the UK. That’s why we have a European parliament which is elected every five years with the next election in May this year.”

    But the European parliament makes law and policy for the EU as a whole. It has no role in deciding the UK’s (or any other country’s) place in it: that is properly a matter for domestic policy and etherefore national elections.
    I fundamentally disagree with the use of European elections as a proxy for the big question on europe itself, and am disappointed that our party has chosen to go along with this rather than seek to challenge it. At least the Greens, whatever you think of their policies, actually base their Euro campaigns on what their MEPs intend to do to influence EU law and policy.

  • I am a great supporter of the EU but I think the anti-EU brigade would accept the result of a referendum even if the public vote to stay in. To that extent, a referendum on this issue would provide closure to what has become a long drawn out and highly contentious issue.

  • Michael Parsons 23rd Jan '14 - 2:47am

    Sue Render

    BUT the pro-EU lobby has never accepted even one of the NO votes at a referendum! Do as I say but not as I do, then?

  • Lee Upcraft 30th Jan '14 - 8:20pm

    How can you justify your article on the basis of the statement from Robert Cooper, “The sovereignty of parliament is a good principle because it allows maximum space for political decision-making and maximum opportunity for debate on issues that are always complex.”

    The British Parliament is NOT a sovereign entity. Its decisions are constrained or prohibited by EU treaties.

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