One way or another, Britain will have a national referendum on EU membership. But the point of the referendum is not to vote. It is to choose between different futures. The advocates of the EU, like Lord Mandelson, argue that Britain needs to “concentrate on using all of our influence and energy in building up Britain’s influence in Europe”.
That is the same siren song Britain has heard since the days of Harold Macmillan: if only Britain really tries its hardest, if only it commits to the EU wholeheartedly, it can lead the EU in ways that serve British interests.
This hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work in the future. Staying in the EU means outsourcing the control of Britain’s borders, the sovereignty of Parliament, and, increasingly, its economic, fiscal, and foreign policies to Brussels. No amount of wholehearted British commitment can change that.
But leaving the EU is no cure-all. It will give Britain the freedom to make better choices, but Britain will need to make wise and energetic use of that freedom. And if it’s going to do that, advocates of an exit need to start now to plan what they will do the day after the vote.
And nothing needs advance planning more than Britain’s foreign policy. Right now, it barely has one worthy of the name. So much of what passes for policy now is pure symbolism, utterly disconnected from anything that would actually make Britain better off. Take Britain’s approach to global warming, please.
Recently, the British Ambassador to the US disconcertingly described global warming as just as important a problem as preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. If the West’s campaign against Iran works as well as the Kyoto Accord, we can confidently expect Tehran to go nuclear very soon.
The whole comparison is completely unserious. And Britain’s policy on global warming is equally ridiculous: make consumers pay through the nose, even though no amount of hair shirt environmentalism in Britain will cause China to burn less coal or convince the Germans or Japanese to return to nuclear power.
Britain has also become a global leader in feel-good initiatives like William Hague’s “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”. There is something obscene about advancing this campaign in the midst of the Syrian war. It is all too obvious that pious declarations have become a substitute for actually having a policy.
The first thing that needs to happen after Britain leaves the EU is the Foreign Office must be cleaned up. It has been in the tank for political Europe since 1960; it will play every trick in the book to help beat the referendum; and if it loses, it will do everything it can to make life outside the EU seem intolerable.
The myth of the apolitical civil service cannot stand in the way of remaking the Foreign Office. Britain’s diplomats are just as political as everyone else, especially when it comes to the EU. If the nation chooses to leave, they cannot be allowed to remain mentally tied to Brussels. Having misled Britain in, they must be? led out.
Britain will need new diplomats, ones with skills that have atrophied in the forty years since Britain joined the EU. It has been two generations, for example, since Britain negotiated a trade agreement on its own.
As a net importer, Britain has even more to gain from free trade than most nations. But right now, all it can do without going through Brussels is send a high-profile trade mission. Even? at its best, this is a policy of picking winners and, like David Cameron’s ?visit to Kuwait to sell arms in early? 2011, it can be embarrassingly ill-timed.
Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have talked endlessly about using British diplomacy to bolster British business. But the way to do that is not to employ diplomats as export agents. It is to pursue a policy of commercial freedom that benefits everyone, consumers, importers, and exporters alike.
The EU is deeply committed to two things: top-down control and feel-good declarations, like its “Lisbon Agenda” which promised in 2000 to make it “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010”. ?A Britain that chose to be outside the EU would have to take a different? path, or its choice would be meaningless.
It would spend far less on development aid, for example, a classic, pious, money-wasting example of a father-knows-best approach to economic growth. It would abandon the EU’s emphasis on promoting mobility inside Europe in favor of welcoming talent from around the world. And it would stop contributing to EU organizations like the European Defence Agency, which exist only to subvert Nato.
There is a sense in which complaining about the EU risks being an end in itself. It satisfies a deeply-held need in modern society: to have something to gripe about. And that actually suits the EU chorus just fine, because one reason politicians of all stripes love the EU is that it gives ?them an excuse for anything that goes wrong.
Leaving the EU implies that Britain is going to commit itself to everything the EU dislikes: freedom, and preferring deeds to words. That approach will make Britain’s moribund foreign policy relevant again. But it is an approach that will take leadership and commitment, and planning that needs to start now.
Originally published in The Yorkshire Post.