Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Retreat to victory

In an earlier post, I promised a series of essays exploring why euroscepticism failed and what we need to do about it. This is the first.

Before embarking on the subject, though, I must thank all the forum posters, those who e-mailed us and Daniel Hannan, Tim Montgomerie and Tony Sharp for their good wishes and comments.

I should stress, though, that while we are considering winding up EU Referendum, that is because that issue – the idea of a referendum – is dead and buried. This means our title is confusing and misleading, which also suggests it is time to move on. We are thus thinking in terms of a name-change and a change of style, widening our scope beyond EU issues.

As to the thesis of this post, based on the premise that "euroscepticism" is dead, we really need to define the term. For the purposes of our argument, we take the "extreme" view that this encompasses those who wish to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union.

There is no equivocation here: we use the term to describe those who want to leave the EU – not those who would want to "renegotiate" our position, or who would like to see the EU "reform", reshaping itself in a way that is more acceptable to the British, or some such. Neither, in our view, are in any way likely or even possible. The guardians of the "project" have not come all this way to water down their creation, or give up their hard-won advances.

And, if "renegotiation" was ever on the cards, a necessary precursor would have to be a commitment to leave the EU, which means that those who are really serious about seeking a new relationship with the EU though this means must first accept the essential precondition. Leaving the EU would, in any case then require a negotiation – or "renegotiation" if you prefer – in order that we are able to maintain relationships with our neighbours, which rather makes arguing for renegotiation redundant. It follows necessarily, but only if we quit.

Addressing now the chosen thesis, I would maintain that, in the foreseeable future – and for many years to come – there is no prospect whatsoever of the UK leaving the EU. I see no likelihood of a newly elected Conservative government seeking to do this, and of course, there is absolutely no possibility of the Brown government even thinking about it.

To that extent, euroscepticism is dead. It is a movement without an achievable goal and, furthermore, the goal itself does not have any widespread popular support. Put the in/out question to a referendum and the near certainty is that the vote would favour staying in.

One of the reasons why the majority of people would most likely decide for the EU is the famous TINA – there is no alternative. Like it or not, the EU provides innumerable "services", without which the UK would have difficulty functioning. Furthermore, outside the EU, it would have enormous difficulties rebuilding and establishing working relationships with the rest of the international community. For better or worse, most would say, we are stuck with our current arrangements.

Another reason relates to the "teaser" offered in the earlier post. Big business, I asserted, loves the EU. In evidence, two links were provided. The first reported: "UK businesses back EU expansion".

This piece retailed that "some of Britain's biggest companies are backing the enlargement of the European Union", arguing that the economies of Eastern Europe provide lucrative growth opportunities - and they want more of the same. These businesses included the advertising giant WPP, life assurer Aviva and steel group Corus.

The other link referred to a report of a conference where "European power companies" called for harmonised EU safety rules on nuclear power plants.

Any amount of evidence can be produced to the effect that "big business" supports our membership of the EU. For sure, some would like to see "reform", or "tweaks" that would adjust its rules in their favour, but none would support the proposition that we should leave the EU. And, of course, big business equals big money – and influence. In any referendum campaign, or generally, money talks. The money would be talking for continued membership.

One more reason why sentiment would not favour the exit route is the extraordinary level of ignorance about the EU – and in particular the amount of damage it does – contrasted with those who believe that, for all its disadvantages, the EU does offer the UK some benefits.

Typical of the latter genre are many Conservatives, who sincerely believe that the Single Market is "a good thing", entirely unaware or unwilling to accept that this is a major instrument in the process of economic integration – the essence of the "Monnet Method" from which stems political integration.

Much of this fantasising about the Single Market rests on the uncomfortable fact that it was on Margaret Thatcher's watch that the Single Market Act was passed into UK law. The Thatcher worshipers have difficulty coming to terms with the fact that she was responsible for one of the most important steps towards integration the Community has produced.

Serious students of EU history will know that, in accepting the Single Market Act, Thatcher was comprehensively hoodwinked, and that the treaty itself was part one of two, the latter part being the Maastricht Treaty – the genesis of modern euroscepticism. If you are against Maastrict, however, to be intellectually consistent, you must also oppose the Single Market Act. They are but one, in the march to political integration, of which the constitutional Lisbon treaty is the latest instalment.

Yet, such is the profound, wholly untutored ignorance of the reality that we can read of "the moderate Euroscepticism of Thatcher 1979-86 - which was very productive from the British point of view, delivering us a rebate and the Single European Act."

Against such ignorance, there is no defence - it is so absolute that it cannot even begin to understand how wrong it is. It is complete in itself, needing no sustenance or evidence, and brooks no counter-argument. It is beyond rationality, reflecting an article of faith which drives much of the Conservative tribe, sustaining its "soft" Europhilia which masquerades as Euroscepticism.

Yet, unfortunately, it is to the Conservatives that we must turn for any hope of leaving the EU. Hope there is none. And here, the most powerful reason comes into play.

Returning to TINA, what few people even begin to realise is the depth and complexity of our entanglement with the EU. After 36 years of membership, imbibing fifty years-worth of integrationist measures, our administrative and legislative systems are so interwoven with the EU that to remove them would be equivalent to dealing with a metastatic cancer with a surgeons knife. In theory, it could be done – but it would almost certainly kill the patient.

This is actually what presents itself to anyone who has seriously examined the reality of leaving the European Union. If team Cameron ever get down to such an examination, its thinkers will come to the same conclusion. They would also discover that, such would be the complexity and political capital expended, it would neutralise the political process for years to come, entirely frustrating any attempts the Conservatives might have to develop a distinctive domestic agenda.

So fraught with risk would be such a process that, wisely, any sensible politician (i.e., one who wishes to remain in office) would run a mile from it.

That is not to say that the complexity could not be addressed and overcome, but the word means what is says. Complex is, er … complex. To come up with a well-founded strategy for leaving the EU – and thus replacing the web of EU policies with distinctive national policies of our own – would take a massive amount of work, requiring a huge team of experts familiar with every aspect which the EU touches.

That work has not been done – there is no likelihood of it being done in the immediate future. Yet, unless and until the British public (and the politicians) can be offered a reasoned and better alternative to the EU, like it or lump it, TINA lives.

For sure, we can continue telling everybody how ghastly the EU really is. But those who care enough about the subject know that already, or believe it even if they do not know it as fact. The majority of people, though – confronted with the reality of leaving the EU, and what that entails – would accept the status quo, simply on the premise that any (unformed and unspecified) alternative could only be worse – and infinitely perilous.

It is in that context that Euroscepticism has met with the poison which will finish it off. We have spent decades telling everybody how awful the EU is. Most probably, the bulk of people believe us – even the soft Europhiles of the Conservative Party. But we do not have the capability to take the next step – to push the intellectual boundaries and offer realistic, fully developed alternatives. Worse still, most do not even accept that there is the need to do so.

To conclude this first part, therefore, I will refer to what I would aver is essential reading for anyone with any interest in military history – but with surprising relevance to contemporary politics.

This is a new(ish) book by Major General Julian Thompson. Simply called "Dunkirk", its sub-title is "Retreat to Victory", which is also the theme of this post, the relevance of which can be drawn from this quotation dealing with General Gort, commander of the BEF in France in 1940. Thompson writes:

Gort's decision to evacuate his army at Dunkirk saved the BEF. He may not have been a brilliant army commander … But he was able to see with absolute clarity that the French high command were utterly bankrupt of realistic ideas and that consequently Allied plans would lead nowhere, and he had the moral courage and unwavering willpower to act in the face of censure and criticism, thus ensuring that the BEF was saved. There are few occasions when the actions of one man can be said to be instrumental in winning a war. This was one of those. Had the BEF been surrounded, cut off and forced to surrender, it is inconceivable that Britain would have continued to fight without an army.
Faced with an unwinnable battle, therefore, Gort did the only sensible thing. He cut and ran – the precursor to rebuilding and re-equipping a damaged army. With new allies and against a weakened enemy, his successors were thus able to return to Europe and comprehensively defeat the Nazis.

I have in my mind's eye a parallel between Dunkirk and the constitutional Lisbon treaty. Both represent major defeats, the one for the BEF and Britain, the other for Euroscepticism (and Britain). In the former event, the defeat was turned to victory by Gort's retreat. My thinking is that we must do the same – retreat, rebuild and rethink, ready for the long battle that our successors must fight. We are not going to win it, and if we continue the way we are doing, we risk the same fate that would have befallen the BEF had it been rash enough to stand and fight.

If Sun Tzu and Clauswitz both maintained that one of the most important military rules is, "Don't reinforce failure," I am merely following that advice. We need to retrench and rebuild. We need to "retreat to victory".

Precisely what we need to do to, I will discuss in Part II.

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