Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
The renegotiation is not a British issue, but a Europe-wide one. We harm our cause and our own union by presenting it as the continental fallout from an English obsession. It’s happening because the drama of high politics is finally forcing leaders across the continent to confront the contradictions that have always been present in the European project. Contradictions that everyone knew about and, like ice cracking on a frozen lake, have felt underfoot each time they’ve stepped on unfamiliar ground. All the travellers knew was that they had to get so far across the lake that there was no turning back.
They’ve probably managed it. Their creation might be an unwieldy monster no one controls, but Europe is very much alive. We must work with it. Now faced with economic sclerosis, the refugee crisis and a Russian president determined to star in his own ‘Cold War II: The Empire Strikes Back’, EU member states are having to figure out answers to outstanding questions. That’s what the British renegotiation must trigger: questions on the meaning of sovereignty, the role of national democracies, and EU authority in foreign relations. We know we have different answers. That should decide our path.
This is to a multi-speed Europe. A Eurozone that pursues fiscal and political integration to resolve its current stagnation, and a periphery protected from that integration which takes part in trade and diplomatic arenas.
In the report by the German think tank DGAP which sets out what Brexit means for other countries, it’s said that others see Britain as a spoiler. This isn’t the role we want to play, but it’s the one we’re forced into by the failure of the EU to properly recognise innate tensions. One size fits all is a recipe for failure. This is why we need to get these tensions out in the open to give the core the freedom to integrate, and the others the protection from it. Britain has no interest in derailing that integration to those it’s right for.
It’s not just Eurozone countries we need to win over. Likeminded EU members are disappointed that we have decided to hold a referendum. This applies especially to Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Baltic nations. They think we’re giving up on reform, not making it more likely. They’re also extremely worried about their fates within the EU should the UK leave.
They’re right that the continent would be diminished without our voice in favour of an outward-looking EU. Britain is why the EU isn’t the statist and insular bloc obsessed with power and control that it would have been with the French in control. That the EU is a liberalising force that countries in the East desperately want to be a part of is down to us. We should take the curses of the anti-globalisation left and right as a compliment.
It was necessary to put Brexit on the table to wake up Brussels, Paris and Berlin, but we do have to prove doubters wrong and demonstrate that what we’re aiming for isn’t fanciful. David Cameron is doing exactly that by including as many member states as possible and by forcing those who’d rather hide from the tensions to face up to them or face a disastrous Brexit.
In this process, all members must see the cultural and historic reasons for the tensions to recognise that they’re not just down to the electoral priorities of the governments of the day. They’re insurmountable if left unattended. They’ll guarantee the failure of the EU. From this zoomed out perspective, if Europeans are frustrated with Britain now, it’s nothing new.
Britain has never quite gelled with the continent, but can never escape its orbit. It is this geographic fact that makes the way many present ‘Leaving Europe’ so amusing. But it’s also the geographic fact that Britain, and countries such as Sweden, will always be on the periphery of Europe looking in.
This is as true now as ever. Central European countries find it so much easier to work within the structures of European diplomacy than we do because they have to and because the area that is now Germany, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia was governed via broad consensus and summit diplomacy under the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years. They spent only a tiny amount of their histories as sovereign nation states before moving to share that sovereignty under the EU. The short period in between was horrendous. By contrast, Tudor England was Europe’s original rogue state, positioned in opposition to continental power. We don’t reflexively expect to be constrained in our choices when we make them.
Britain’s peripheral island status and history effects how we see borders, sovereignty, and relationships with Europe. It’s why we miss how the EU is seen by many on the continent. Germany and France see the EU as a common cultural base designed to radically alter the nature of politics on the continent. Considering European history, we should back them. It doesn’t mean that we need to follow the same path. I hope this renegotiation leads to a multi-speed Europe where both visions can mutually exist rather than stubbornness forcing a divorce that’s worse for everyone.