By Peter Wilding - 28th March 2013
When asked how much influence Britain has in Europe, up to 80 per cent of Brits polled think they have none
As creator of the single market and leader of defence and foreign policy Britain should be leading, not leaving, the EU, argues Peter Wilding.
Today’s European Union is a canvas onto which a new vision of European cooperation can be painted. Federalising forces are alive, of course, and remain the stuff of eurosceptic nightmares. But equally the forces pressing to liberalise the EU in order to face a world of globalised market states working in economic blocs are just as strong. Unfortunately, the natural leader of this cause – the UK – is unable and unwilling to get out of first gear to make its case. For friends and allies witnessing this, it is a sad fate for a great country.
Why? The lion’s roar now whimpers. When asked how much influence Britain has in Europe, up to 80 per cent of Brits polled think they have none. Britain suffers delusions of weakness not strength. With a media hell-bent on demonising Europe and politicians frightened of selling a vision, people feel dragged along in a relentless tide of negative fantasy in which Britain is a Gulliver tied down by EU Lilliputians. The opposite and positive reality: that Britain is free to shape Europe’s future – in its role as creator of the single market and leader in defence and foreign policy – is not heard.
Few Brits would know that the two great achievements of the European project over the past 30 years – the single market and the push to the east – were largely driven by them. British diplomats are, along with the French, regarded as the most effective in Brussels. The determination to complete the single market has supporters in northern Europe, the accession countries and the European commission itself. But the gap between the British public’s mood of resentful low self-esteem and the political reality is where euroscepticism has grown.
So Britain needs to stop whimpering and practice an active not passive approach. Last year, 18 EU prime ministers signed David Cameron’s manifesto urging the completion of the single market. Together with the current prospect of the US-EU free trade agreement, the UK has a vital position in promoting competitiveness in order to boost European growth and create jobs.
Also, the rise of Russia into a fully-fledged energy state and the Islamic fundamentalist turbulence in the gas-rich deserts of north Africa requires Britain to lead European defence alliances and provide common purpose. The fact is that Britain is already working closely with France and other military allies in the EU.
But this positive reality is unheard in Britain. There, a nostalgic back-to-the-future message of a UK free of the yoke of supranational entanglements is enough. In the mayhem of political and economic instability that currently troubles the establishment, this vision is the hallucinatory drug pleasing the populace. British influence has been set up to challenge this historic error. The rationale for British influence in Europe today is stronger, not weaker, than it was 40 years ago. Then the rationale was prosperity. Today it is also about power in a world which is undergoing its biggest change in centuries. In this new world, to leverage power, Britain needs the heft of the EU. This is true in economics, in trade, in defence, foreign policy, the very issues where Britain should be leading – not leaving – the political scene.
Peter Wilding is director of the think tank British influence through Europe