Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
Size-wise, it may only come in at number five of seven, but Sally Bowles puts it pretty well when she sings, ‘The continent of Europe is so wide, mein Herr. Not only up and down, but side to side, mein Herr.’
Oh, Europe! That most loaded of words for a Conservative; it’s more polarising than the polar ice caps. Yet, it would be easy, at this point, to do what I normally do: play piggy in the middle, call myself a Eurosceptic Europhile, and recite the seeming delaying tactics of renegotiation and referendum.
We’ll get to all that – I promise – but I’d rather try to work out the question before answering it.
What is it we mean when we talk about Europe? A landmass post-Pangean rift? The almost 1500 miles between London and Kiev (more on this later), the 2000 between the top of Sweden and the bottom of Crete, or the distance between whichever two geographical extremes you choose? The countries belonging to standardised Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western bloc formations? The member states of various political organisations?
Come on, though – let’s be honest – it’s a lot more likely that we’re referring to either a) the bureaucratically tumefied claws of a banana-eugenicising monster, or b) the hallowed protectorate of peace and prosperity in a quixotically tranquil world.
And what it is we want from this Europe thing, anyway? What would our ideal relationship with it be? Whilst politics often calls for short-term concessions for long-term gains – the Thatcherian pragmatism of principle – we need to decide what we want, before we give in to compromise or defeatism.
After all, the demarcation of every country (aside from the occasional island) is anthropogenic; the nation state is, itself, a relatively recent development.
There are many differing ideas as to what being an inhabitant of one of these states should involve. At the very least, it seems sensible for a state to offer the protection that individuals can’t provide for themselves. To me, this comes from the tacit agreement into which we enter by living somewhere: an exchange of individual liberty for the reward of corporate security.
But the extent of this exchange is, of course, a (if not the) major source of political division. We consider it every time we debate the remit of welfare, our levels of defence spending, how higher education should be paid for – and so on.
Where most of us converge, however, is in the reverence of parliamentary sovereignty. Not least because this is how our democratic system works: we choose governments based upon the political and economic policies through which they offer to represent us.
Yet, in a reducible sense, this partitioning of the world into states is superintended by the alliances and relationships into which these states enter with each other. When we can’t agree upon how much control our own country should have over us, it can be difficult to decide how much power – if any – our country should cede to a greater force.
So, we need to consider the forms that we want these international relationships to take. This is something we sometimes miss when arguing about Europe.
After all, belonging to the EU – the 1993 Maastrichtian reincarnation of the EEC – is but one of the formal, and informal, arrangements we have with our closest geographical neighbours. These arrangements vary in nature, and in terms of the number of countries involved.
The argument that we would be letting down Winston Churchill by withdrawing from the EU is weak. Our membership of the Council of Europe – which he helped to set up in 1949, in order to maintain peace, and guarantee human rights and freedoms – would be unaffected. Forty-seven countries are currently members of this Council; it is external to the EU –– which has only 28. Nineteen countries are part of the Eurozone; 26 are in the Schengen Area.
And various places have their own, individually tailored, European deals – the usual example being Norway, which is not an EU member, although its domestic law is submissive to EU decisions, and it does benefit from the single market.
So, regardless of whether leaving the EU might put the UK in a stronger or weaker political or economic position, it is wrong to claim that this would entail cutting off all our European ties. Rather, again, we need to decide what form we want these ties to take; how much power we want to abdicate to, or gain from them; and – vitally – how much support we want to assure, and be assured from, our fellow Europeans.
David Cameron’s claim in his great 2013 renegotiation-outlining Bloomberg speech that, ‘What Churchill described as the twin marauders of war and tyranny have been almost entirely banished from our continent,’ is no longer so clearly the case. The past couple of years – and, particularly, months – have reminded us of Europe’s fragility, and the benefits and disadvantages of increased unity within it. This is exemplified by the current situation in two of its countries – Greece and Ukraine.
Greece’s lasting subscription to the Eurozone is still in doubt. Before its leather-jacketed über-cool economist superhero, Yanis Varoufakis, burst on to the scene, it looked as if even selling off the Parthenon – London-Bridge-McCulloch-style – wouldn’t have prevented financial catastrophe.
The underlying question, however, surely remains whether it really is best for Greece to attempt to keep the Euro. (And, indeed, whether any country should.)
In the long term, will endless European bailouts preclude it from attempting self-sufficient prosperity? Of course, its government is struggling to address this now, amidst the backlash of austerity, but doesn’t this point up the inherent failings of a pan-federal monetary union between states that remain politically disparate?
Greece’s liaison with the Eurozone seems a dependent and overextended form of European relationship. It shows that, whilst deep economic unity might seem attractive, particularly to poorer states, it carries significant risks.
Contrastingly, Ukraine can benefit from the kind of European unity called for by Churchill. Its current crisis has roots in the hope of being more closely associated with Europe.
When its then president, Viktor Yanukovych, extinguished this hope in November 2013, the rebellious (Wagnerian-sounding) Euromaidanistas responded by successfully deposing his government – only to be left vulnerable to Russian avarice.
The following annexation of Crimea appears to be a classic example of the border exploitation that defined twentieth-century warfare; to many it is an illegal act, not least in its contravention of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
The desperation in Ukraine is well documented by writers such as Andrey Kurkov. And the UK’s involvement in the international attempt to protect these people – not least in our recent provision of non-combat military personnel – seems easily justifiable, and fitting to our countries’ alliance.
Of course, how far this protection should extend is contentious. Intervention is the big question of our post-Iraq, post-Arab Spring times: it’s far too big to discuss properly here. But helping Ukraine to defend its sovereignty seems representative of a very appropriate kind of European relationship.
This is what we return to. Surely the best enactments of international fraternity promote peace, combat violence, and protect the sovereignty of nations. More controversial examples can risk these things by enforcing controlling political or economic unity.
This doesn’t mean that trade links aren’t important, however; suggestions that we should eschew the EU in favour of strengthening our connections with the Commonwealth or NAFTA ignore current UK trading realities.
And all of this is why – as a committed Eurosceptic Europhile – I side with the Cameronites on Europe: the joint strategy of renegotiation and referendum seems the best way to ensure the kind of European relationship we need.
Renegotiation, because I have faith in the good of our existing arrangements – and because this approach is already working (slowly, maybe, but I like gradual change). Referendum, because protecting our national voice is immensely important.
Some argue that referenda themselves threaten parliamentary sovereignty, but the result of this specific referendum will demonstrate – and potentially enshrine – the extent to which we value it.
Pollsters and hustings organisers love to ask, ‘If there were an in-out referendum on Europe tomorrow, how would you vote?’ And this is a useful question – because it is fallacious. We don’t need to vote on our membership of the EU today, or tomorrow, and this is important.
Rather, the UK needs to elect a Conservative government this May, because only that government will allow us to continue the essential task of assessing and renegotiating our relationship with Europe – whatever it should be.