Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Where would we be if Tony Blair weren’t trying to rule the world? His latest outfit is the unexpectedly vaingloriously named Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) – though its Wikipedia entry doesn’t stretch to more than a single small-screen page.
Recently, the TBI published The Centre in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Some have been keen to emphasise its finding that 56 per cent of UK voters agree that Britain “should leave the European Union, even if no deal or trade agreement has been struck with the EU”. This is an attitude that Blair calls “ambivalent” in his accompanying essay, however: based on the results of another question, he claims “a majority oppose Hard Brexit”. With insufficient time – and, to be honest, interest, since I’ve read many clearer reports – I was tempted to move on.
Then I noticed this:
And, specifically, that under ten per cent of French voters had answered: “I want to see us remain in the EU as it is today”, and only just over 10 per cent of Germans. That’s serious dissatisfaction, no? Wait, you counter, 70 per cent say they want to stay, nonetheless – and some of those who desire reform are calling for “more EU”, not less, anyway. I get that. But it’s still because they’re not happy “as it is”; otherwise, they’d have joined the lonely yet satisfied 10 per cent who went for option two.
Some people in Europe want “more EU” because they need it. Being stuck in a halfhearted economic link-up, over which you have no control, isn’t great in times of trouble – particularly if you’re coming from a weak position. The classic Piketty (et al) suggestion of mutualising EU debt and issuing “Eurobonds”, so the European Central Bank can support countries in extremis, is a reforming approach that would necessitate greater political union. As he points out in Chronicles on our troubled times,
“to have a common debt, there has to be a strong and legitimate federal political authority. We can’t create Eurobonds and then let each national government decide how many it wants to issue. And that federal authority can’t be the European Council or the Eurogroup. We need to take a giant step forward towards political union and a United States of Europe; otherwise, sooner or later we’ll be headed for a huge step backwards – that is a rejection of the euro.”
That’s surely not the type of reform Germany wants, however. In Berlin Rules, Paul Lever contends that, “whatever form a ‘political union’ might take, it does not mean, for Germans, raising money in Germany for the benefit of others”. He asks whether they really do want increased integration, or if “political union”, for them, is simply a slogan. His conclusion is that the extended union Germany wants is most likely one in which a closer eye can be kept on other countries, with the aim of persuading them to approach fiscal policy along the German lines of low debt, borrowing, and deficits.
This understanding of “reform” might seem less appealing than Piketty’s to people in nearby Greece – or those struggling in France, where youth unemployment rests at over 20 per cent – but, again, it represents a call for change, based on unhappiness with the present situation. As Britons know, however – with the exception of Blair, who still believes things would’ve been different if he’d stayed in charge – EU change hasn’t always been easy to effect.
For many Eurosceptics who preferred the idea of substantial reform to a clear-cut exit, how to vote in last year’s referendum came down to whether the change they wanted seemed possible. What if the EU did x, I say to my remaining Remainer friends – or refused to do y? Would you still afford it unconditional love? At what point would you accept it would never be what you wanted? Unresolved questions about refugees, debt crises, security, and general financial instability will force these questions on more people, and not just Britons. And so will the Brexit negotiations.
Markus Krall claims that many Europeans are unimpressed by the EU’s approach to the Brexit talks because “the EU is taking a risk, here. It is treating [them] as an opportunity to show other EU member states what happens to those who dare to leave”. We’ve seen recently that campaigns based on threats don’t always work. And are people in Europe proud of this bullyboy style?
What if Brexit turns out well, regardless? What if we forget our arguments, address the big policy problems we couldn’t for 40 years, relish in the return of our law-setting powers, appreciate a fair migration system that doesn’t prioritise Belgians and Germans over Canadians and Indians, and are glad to be able to help poorer countries by choosing to trade with them without punitive tariffs?
What if other Europeans recognise this? What if they spot that those bullyboy tactics may be predicated on such a recognition. The uber-Remainers praying for disaster don’t understand that Britain doing well post-Brexit isn’t in our self-interest, alone. They want so badly to be right, that they don’t care if their nightmares bring us all down – Europe, too.
The obvious point, which, for me, has always been at the heart of all this is that you can love Europe and dislike the EU. You can dislike the EU for the very reason that you love Europe: in the interests of your neighbours, your allies, your friends.
When does that top option on the TBI question disappear? When is choosing reform no longer relevant? Either because people are satisfied with the reform that has already taken place – hard to envisage, not least because of the disparate nature of people’s desires, as partially catalogued above – or because they’ve accepted it’s just not coming. Then what? What if the Brexit reforms turn out to reflect the changes – or at least the outcomes – that many Europeans actually want, if they knew they were possible?
Those like Blair are still painting this debate as the sensible versus the loons, the centre versus the extreme, Europe versus Britain. But it’s not. You can be as left, as right, as centrist as you want, and see that the EU isn’t working for many people – and often, the least advantaged. (If Jeremy Corbyn were up front about his Euroscepticism, maybe this would be more obvious.)
Sure, people in other European countries are more invested in the EU than us. Sure, I’m not really saying anything new. But I’m certain it’s not only Britons who feel this way.