I've never advocated withdrawal from the EU. I've always hoped we could secure a relationship with our EU partners within the Single Market but outside the Single European State, a position that would require a significant renegotiation of our position within the EU.
Unfortunately, I think that's now not going to happen. Probably our last realistic chance of renegotiating our position within the EU was in December 2010, at the time of the major revision to the Lisbon Treaty that occurred then. If we weren't going to ask for any repatriation of powers at that stage, with an incoming government led by a party that had run at the previous three General Elections promising to repatriate powers, and with the Eurozone totally dependent on our agreeing to the Lisbon Treaty being revised, we were never going to have any credibility in seeking to renegotiate. And so it transpired that when, in December 2011, we finally did ask to repatriate something – something very minor – our negotiating hand was much weaker (since it was a new Treaty, rather than a Treaty revision, that was under consideration and they didn't need our participation), and we were turned down. Public opinion in the UK is now turning decisively against EU membership and an in-out referendum seems increasingly inevitable.
Our leaving the EU, of course, supposes that the EU itself will last long enough for us to leave. That's much less obvious than it has seemed previously. With the Spanish bailout, there is now every chance of the euro collapsing totally, destroying the EU in the process.
However, even if it were still feasible to renegotiate and even if the EU will survive, with the fortieth anniversary of our EU membership coming up, it would still be worth reviewing whether EU membership is still the best geopolitical arrangement for the UK.
Most discussions of leaving the EU assume we would continue to work more closely with our European friends and allies than with others. I'm not sure what would be gained by that. As I see things, if we are talking about leaving the EU rather than renegotiating (and if the EU still exists) we are talking about a radical shift in our geopolitical focus, away from the Continent and towards…somewhere else.
Where, though? We can think of the world, for this purpose, as made up of key (slightly overlapping) blocks: Europe, the US, the BRICs, the Commonwealth, an Anglosphere, the Rest. Taking Europe as read, and setting aside the Rest, let's take the others in turn.
The US – The United States is not our Friend. It is our friend, but that's another matter. We talk of the Special Relationship, but there were really only two Special Relationships: Churchill and Roosevelt, and Thatcher and Reagan. Otherwise, the US has only been our ally since 1941 (it even refused to ally with us in World War I – fighting as an "associated power" – and in the 1930s scenario-planned for war with the British), and after World War II the US was instrumental in the dismantling of the British Empire. The US population respects the British, seeing us as tending to be on the winning side in wars, and consequently it is helpful to US administrations if we ally with them militarily. And we do share some limited cultural values and political norms, but a lot less than often thought. The US was also involved in a noble Project of defeating Soviet Communism (though more than content to see the British Empire dismantled in the process). The US is much closer to us politico-culturally than, say, France. But it is fundamentally our long-term competitor in the centuries-long game of Great Powers, and healthily eager to retain its hegemony. We are its brethren, but its irreconcilably sundered brethren, Rome to its Byzantium. We must look elsewhere.
The BRICs – If we set aside India for now, we are talking of Brazil, Russia and China. Of these, only the Russians could conceivably see any interest in a close trading and cultural alliance with us of the broad nature of the EU. Though vaguely intellectually attractive in a counterintuitive sort of way, in truth we would have vastly more to offer the Russians than they us. A non-starter.
The Commonwealth – Were Lennon and McCartney wrong – can you reheat a souffle? The Commonwealth still has some of the cultural and economic exchange structures that could be developed and deepened into a successor arrangement to the EU for the UK. And in India the Commonwealth includes a country that has the potential to be one of tomorrow's Great Powers. Even other parts of the Commonwealth have grown more strongly than the EU in recent decades. But I think it is questionable whether our Commonwealth partners would trust us sufficiently to deepen Commonwealth ties into a true post-EU alternative, given the combination of post-colonial victim narratives and the way we ditched the Commonwealth for the EEC before. Also, do we need something as vast as the whole Commonwealth?
An Anglosphere – Now we come to it. I think the most natural startpoint post-EU economic and cultural allies for the UK are Canada and Australia. Canada and Australia have vast geographies available and would, under the right circumstances, welcome the interchange of peoples with the UK and with each other entailed by an EU-style cultural and economic relationship. Canada and Australia do not have significant victim analyses of their past relationships with Britain. They are wealthy and strongly-growing countries that would have little reason to fear economic or cultural or political domination if combined with the UK. They have much closer political and cultural norms to the UK than any of the other alternatives suggested. An economico-cultural alliance with the UK would allow Canada and Australia to interact and cooperate with one another, via the UK as intermediary, much more deeply than current geopolitical arrangements allow. They are our near-peers in economic size – Australia's 2011 GDP was more than 60% of the UK's and Canada's GDP was more than 70%. Indeed, in combination our three economies would be more than one third of the size of the US or around 80% the size of China. They offer a natural complementarity of economic models (producing different things from us) that would mean economic cooperation would not imply large transitional costs as economies were forced to restructure.
With modern transport and communications links, and with Britain's own full-world connectivity history, we do not need to assume that our economic and cultural linkages must only be with our geographic neighbours. Would Canada and Australia take us? Within just a few short years, it might be time to find out.