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Britain’s European destiny

Europe has disturbed and divided British politics for years. But now mainstream politicians from the governing party are openly making the case for Britain leaving the European Union, or radically changing its relationship with it – which may amount to the same thing – with the sympathy of some of our nation’s leaders and far wider support among the public.

Europe is a destiny that Britain will never embrace easily
- Tony Blair

The reason for this resurgent scepticism and hostility toward the EU is not hard to fathom. Europe is in crisis. The euro’s design flaw – an economic union motivated by politics but expressed in economics – has become manifest. Structural changes to economies that experienced a sharp fall in interest rates when they joined a Germany-dominated currency bloc now must be made quickly, in crisis and without the luxury of devaluation.

With Europe in crisis, being anti-Europe is popular. But leadership is not about conceding to short-terms politics. It is about managing short-term politics in the pursuit of the right long-term policy.

In fact, the rationale for the European Union today is stronger, not weaker, than it was 66 years ago, when the project began. But it is different. Back then, the rationale was peace; today, it is power. China has a population that is three times larger than that of the EU and an economy that eventually will be the world’s largest. India has more than a billion people. Indonesia’s population is three times that of the largest European country, and a host of other countries – including Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines and Egypt – have more people today than any EU member state.

This is crucial, because, as technology and capital become globally mobile, a realignment of GDP and population will occur: the larger a country’s population, the bigger its economy. The US remains extraordinarily strong, with its military easily the world’s largest and best equipped, but its status as the only superpower will become untenable.

That is the big picture. The case for the EU today is that member countries, including Britain, need its heft in order to leverage power in economics, trade, defence and foreign policy, as well as to address global challenges like climate change. The EU gives Britain a weight collectively that it lacks on its own. It really is that simple: In a world in which China and India both have populations 20 times that of the United Kingdom, Britain needs the EU in order to pursue its national interest effectively. With it, we count for more; without it, we count for less. And if we want to participate in Europe, we must do so as Europeans, which depends on Britain recognising not only the strategic rationale for Europe, but also Britain’s strategic interest in being part of it.

Here, it is no longer good enough for us pro-Europeans to claim that only atavistic Little Englanders make the case for leaving, or to pretend that, outside the EU, Britain would collapse or disintegrate. Britain could have a future outside of Europe. The question is whether it should – whether leaving would be sensible in terms of Britain’s long-term interests.

Let us first demolish one delusion, namely that Britain could be like Norway or Switzerland. Norway has a population of around 4.9 million and a GDP of $485.8 billion. It also has a sovereign wealth fund currently valued at more than $600 billion and set to rise to $1 trillion by 2020, owing to vast oil and gas reserves. If the United Kingdom, with a GDP of $2.4 trillion, had a wealth fund of roughly $3 trillion, all of the arguments would change. But it doesn’t. And no serious case can be made that Britain could become like Switzerland, a unique case politically and economically.

Britain outside the EU would face three major disadvantages. First, it would lose its global leadership role. There should be no illusions about this. The idea that it would then seek new relationships with the likes of China and India is fanciful. Neither country would ever subordinate its relationship with Europe to a relationship with a non-European Britain.

Second, leaving the EU would exclude it from the decision-making process determining the rules of the single market. British companies know this; so do global companies that use the UK as a European base.

Finally, Britain would lose the opportunity for cooperation and added strength on issues that it cares about – for example, climate change, trade negotiations, foreign policy, and bilateral disputes – at a time when others are seizing the opportunities offered by regional integration. From the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – now with roughly 600 million people and looking to get a single market underway – to the African Union and South America’s Mercosur and Unasur, countries everywhere are coming together in regional blocs. Will Britain drift away from the one on its doorstep?

Let us be clear, too, about “renegotiating the terms of membership”. If Britain focuses over the next few years not on how it can help Europe recover and prosper, but rather on how it can change its own relationship with Europe, there should be no doubt about the temper and frame of mind that our current partners will bring to that negotiation. Britain must not go down this path unless it is prepared to follow it all the way to the exit.

In 1946, when Europe was debating its first tentative steps toward integration, Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech calling for a United States of Europe, which he believed was the route to peace after the horrors of war. He wished the enterprise well; but he did not intend that Britain would be part of it.

But Britain spent the next two decades and more trying to join it; and when, eventually, it did, many of the rules and much of the institutional infrastructure were already set in stone. I have no doubt that if we could have foreseen the future in 1946, we would have wanted to be in Europe from the beginning.

Europe is a destiny that Britain will never embrace easily. But doing so is absolutely essential to remaining a world power, politically and economically. It would be a monumental error of statesmanship to turn our back on Europe and abandon a crucial position of power and influence in the 21st century.

© Project Syndicate, 2012, www.project-syndicate.org.

Tony Blair was former British Prime Minister. This article is an abridged version of a speech on Europe and the United Kingdom.

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