First it was Tory Grandee and former Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe. He was closely followed by leading business figures including Richard Branson and Martin Sorrell. The voice of reason on the European Union is at last being heard, emerging from the muffled clouds where it has hidden for so long while the sceptics gained ground.
The EU question is far bigger than David Cameron, and it’s unfortunate if predictable that our hapless Prime Minister David Cameron has become the centre of the story. Lord Howe was, of course, preceded by Nigel Lawson, another grandee from a past age, whose comments were, of course, diametrically opposed to Lord Howe. Meanwhile Cabinet Ministers Michael Gove and Philip Hammond pursue their own ambition. The Tories are indeed aping the Labour Party of the 1980s; we have even seen similar insults, swivel- eyed loons being the most public, being thrown around in 1980s Labour fashion.
Labour too was anti-Europe, opposing the Common Market as it was known during the 80s. It is certainly convenient to centre discontent on the EU, an often opaque organisation whose many good points are obscured by certain rabidly Eurosceptic British newspapers.
The tragedy of reducing the European Union to a political party squabble, admittedly a large one, is that is obscures what is really at stake. Geoffrey Howe was absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that the UK is unlikely to hold anything like the position of power to which it aspires without the vehicle of the EU, unless the country was to join the United States, stating, “Leaving the union would, by contrast in my view, be a tragic expression of our shrinking influence and role in the world – and the humbling of our ambitions, already sorely tested by the current crisis, to remain a serious political or economic player on the global stage.”
Most of us in the UK do not take easily to the idea that Britain can no longer go it alone. I, along with millions of others, attended primary school in the late 1950s and early 1960s when much of the world map was still pink, a constant reminder of the empire on which the sun never sets. I too love England’s green and pleasant land, often spending time with my family in the Gloucestershire countryside. And to add icing to the cake, I also truly believe London is the greatest city in the world (and I’ve seen a few others in my time).
We must not let such sentimentality cloud our judgement. Britain is no longer the world leader. The inevitable shifts in global power to the United States of America and now China, India and possibly Brazil and other South American countries have ended British dominance. Though still near the top, we are no longer “it”. Britain therefore has to make painful adjustments.
Many of us thought such adjustments were well under way when we joined the EU in 1973, 40 years ago. Yet this appears not to be the case. Certain backwards-looking elements particularly in the Conservative Party have continued the anti-EU fight, gaining ground as the benefits of EU membership have been progressively downplayed.
Yet those benefits are essential for our very well being. The seat at the top table is hugely important. As a nation used to international influence and respect, Britain has much to offer in terms of long experience and extensive knowledge of defence and diplomacy. To be cut ourselves off from a meaningful role on the international stage would be sheer folly. To remain at the top table Britain must accept that the only realistic choice is to do this as a member of the European Union. We should also remember that neither Norway nor Switzerland, those two countries held up as examples of survival outside the European Union, has any real power in the world.
There are also massive economic benefits from European Union membership. The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner. Everyone, most Eurosceptics included, agree that the EU internal market matters to the UK as the majority of our exports go to the single market. Leaving the EU would mean throwing away this trading advantage, which is obviously the main reason prominent business leaders want to stay in the EU. Make no mistake, if we left the EU we would not be able to stay in the single market. It really is all or nothing. The kind of cherry-picking talked about by some Eurosceptics is quite simply not on the table.
The reality is that Britain is in the EU. We have been there for 40 years and it’s our only viable future. The British people have no choice but to move forward and embrace the European Union. There is quite simply no alternative.