Peter Marshall was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General 1983-88 and UK Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva 1979-83. He is a former Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
In 1957, I heard Clement Attlee, the great Labour post-war Prime Minister, being asked whether we were part of Europe or not: “We’re semi-detached”, he replied.
Lord Attlee hit the nail on the head. Just as we cannot, by reason of our history, of our geography, and of the sort of people we are and wish to remain, link ourselves with our continental neighbours in everything they want to do together, so equally we have found by bitter experience that we cannot hope to cut ourselves adrift without disaster from the affairs of our European neighbours;
It should not be beyond the capacity of several hundred million of the best educated, most richly endowed and democratic people on earth to find a satisfactory modus vivendi between this country and our EU partners. Nor is it – as is convincingly demonstrated by the deal agreed by the European Council in February. The “decision” adopted on that occasion offers Britain a unique position of advantage within the EU. Some people have recognised this: for example, Jane O’Mahony, writing for UK in a Changing Europe, says that it “has the potential to transform the EU”.
Consider some key points: it directly addresses key British concerns:
- Flexibility: The decision is directly anglo-centric. It follows closely the pattern of the Prime Minister’s letter to the President of the European Council of last November, outlining four areas of British concern: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration – emphasising that “our concerns really boil down to one word: flexibility”.
- Specific recognition of different levels of participation. The preambular paragraphs of a decision or resolution are often the key to understanding the full significance of the whole. This is a case in point. They address the whole range of EU activity, including recognition of non-participation by individual member states. The EU is not a monolith.
- No discrimination for not participating in the Euro. Section A on economic governance constitutes a watertight guarantee that there will be no discrimination against member states which do not form part of the Eurozone. The Brexiteers seized on the undertaking not to impede further deepening of the economic and monetary union process as evidence that we have given away our veto on further centralisation which “was one of our strongest cards”. What they choose to ignore is that the undertaking is a direct quid pro quo for the guarantee of non-discrimination against those not taking part. An eminently sensible bargain.
- A strong declaration on driving forward the Single Market. Section B, on competitiveness, “ensures” the establishment of an internal market as “an essential objective of the Union”, and provides for close monitoring of the action to be taken in pursuit of it. This is buttressed by a separate “Council declaration on Competitiveness”, insisting that “we need to breathe new life into the internal market”. There is thus an unprecedented head of steam driving it.
- The UK is not committed to further integration. The wide-ranging Section C on sovereignty starts by recognising that the UK is not committed to further integration. It notes that the limits of Union competence are governed by the principle of conferral, and the use of that competence by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Together with the preambular paragraphs, it underlines the intricacy of the interrelationships between all the complex matters it addresss.
- We can counter the abuse of the free movement of people. Section D, on social benefits and free movement, while inevitably upholding the principle of the free movement as one of the four pillars of the Single Market, recognises the importance of countering instances of its abuse. This is work in progress.
- We have an opening to take all these issues much further. Paragraph 1 of the final Section provides that “any member state may ask the President of the European Council that an issue relating to the application of this Decision be discussed in the European Council”. This is no ritual statement. It is an opening, an invitation. It gives us all the flexibility we need to pursue the substance of the Decision as a whole. It is up to us to take maximum advantage of it.
All in all, there could be a strong case for holding an intergovernmental conference to drive all these issues forward, not as a codicil to treaty changes on institutional matters, but as a helpful preliminary to them. Its core would be an examination of the operation of the Lisbon Treaty, in the light of the declarations of Nice, Laeken and Berlin, and having particular regard to any evidence of European Court of Justice “mission creep”. The UK will hold the EU presidency during the second half of 2017. In the first half it will be held by our dynamic Commonwealth partner, Malta.
In this referendum there is much more which unites us than divides us. We all want peace and prosperity. They are, however, indivisible, above all in our twenty-first century global village. The nagging realities of international involvement may tempt us at times to think we could somehow manage better by “taking back control” It is an illusion. You cannot achieve peace and prosperity on your own terms and alone. You merely encourage others to seek relief in a similar way . It becomes a negative-sum game: “take but degree away, untune that string, and hark! what discord follows: each thing meets in mere oppugnancy”.
As Attlee said, we are semi-detached. Let us accept the fact and act accordingly.