Fisking Geoffrey Howe on Europe

Howe's intervention merely reveals the paucity of the pro-EU position, and reminds us why the europhiles are losing the debate

by Robin Shepherd, Owner / Publisher on 19 May 2013 07:10

When former Chancellor Nigel Lawson famously piled in to the increasingly noisy debate about Britain's position in the European Union a few weeks ago -- he wants us to leave -- his arguments were lucid, measured, and full of fresh and arresting perspective. Now another Tory Grandee and former chancellor of the Thatcher era, Geoffrey Howe, has entered the discussion with some thoughts of his own.

Howe takes the oppositie view from Lawson of what Britain should do, and, frankly, his argumentation is not lucid, not measured and is full of cliches. Overall, it is little better than the familiar europhile compilation of scare tactics. But given what is at stake, it does seem worthwhile to give his article a thorough "Fisking". Howe's key points are highlighted in bold italics; my responses are in standard format text:

Sadly, by making it clear in January that he opposes the current terms of UK membership of the EU, the prime minister has opened a Pandora's box politically and seems to be losing control of his party in the process. The ratchet-effect of Euroscepticism has now gone so far that the Conservative leadership is in effect running scared of its own backbenchers, let alone Ukip, having allowed deep anti-Europeanism to infect the very soul of the party.

This is the one point in Howe's article where it is reasonable to agree with the substance while still disagreeing with the tone. He is right that David Cameron is being blown from side to side by discontented backbenchers. But this is not because he was wrong to have stated his opposition to the current terms of UK membership, it is because he has not been robust enough in explaining how he wants those terms to change.

Archimedes said: "Give me a place on which to stand and lever long enough, and I will move the world." British foreign policy should be about maximising and exploiting the levers we possess – whether through Europe, the transatlantic relationship or the Commonwealth – not breaking them or throwing them away.

In this context, I have yet to meet any significant western political figure from beyond our shores who can understand why Britain would even contemplate leaving the European Union, which is now a key point of leverage for this country in the modern world.

In Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, New Delhi or Moscow, let alone in all other EU national capitals, it seems obvious that the UK needs the union as the platform and vehicle by which to influence events and policy in many spheres

There are multiple confusions here. The first is that no-one, not even the most hardened of eurosceptics, believes we should not work with European partners if it will enhance our foreign policy priorities. But we do not need to be members of the European Union on current terms to do that, (indeed we do not have to be members of the EU at all.)

Why, for example, should Britain's approach to or participation in the Common Agricultural policy make a jot of difference to our willingness or ability to work with European allies on, say, the Middle East peace process? It is a complete non sequitur.

On many of the biggest international issues of the last decade -- consider Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali as illustrations -- the European Union has completely failed to forge a unified foreign policy anyway. In all of these instances Britain has worked, in different ways and at different levels, with those European allies that were interested in cooperating. The nation states of Europe built high-level policy without needing Brussels as a framework. So it will be in the future, regardless of whether Britain is in or out.

Howe bangs on this drum for quite a while, but there are a couple of noteworthy points:

The Americans have always wanted Britain to play a leadership role in a united Europe – from the early 1950s through to today. It has been a constant of US foreign policy that any "special relationship" is not based on nostalgia or some mystical solidarity among the "English-speaking peoples", but on a realpolitik assessment of our capacity to help shape our continent in a modern, outward-looking direction.

What Howe fails to see -- a common mistake in this debate -- is that the United States actually has a very mixed track record in getting Europe right over the last hundred years or so. It was dragged into World War I at almost the last minute, indicating that it did not in fact have a clear understanding of what was at stake in Europe and how history would eventually push it into war anyway.

America misread the Europe of the 1930s too, again believing it could sit things out until reality came crashing down with Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war on America (not the other way round). We all remember America's magnificent contribution to winning the Cold War. But that is starting to look like a glorious exception as Washington today shows next to no understanding of the dangers of the deep integrationist European project.

Half a century ago, in making Britain's first application, Harold Macmillan understood this [the argument contained in Howe's previous paragraph above] very well. He wrote: "If we remain outside the European Community, it seems to me inevitable that the realities of power would compel our American friends to attach increasing weight to the views and interests of the six in Europe, with others who may join them, and to pay less attention to our own. We would find the United States and the community concerting policy together on major issues, with much less incentive than now to secure our agreement or even consult our opinion. To lose influence both in Europe and Washington, as this must mean, would seriously undermine our international position and hence, one must add, our usefulness to the Commonwealth."

Every one of Macmillan's words remains as true and powerful today as in 1962 – except that, first, the six are now the 27; and second, Britain is a much lesser force in world affairs, making the problem he describes more acute.

In one important respect, this is a low point in Howe's argument. He reveals himself through his reference points as stuck in a bygone era. Macmillan's world, Howe's world, is the world of the post-World War II reconstruction; it is the mid-point of a Cold War that itself ended well over a generation ago.

It is a world in which the EU then, as compared to today, was still little more than a loosely knit, and embryonic, trading zone. The EU today is on the verge of trying -- it will fail -- to construct a federal superstate; "a bureaucratic monstrosity" as Lawson put it, with scant regard for democratic principles. 

[It was ironic] that the prime minister's main business in Washington was to discuss the launch of negotiations for an EU-US free-trade agreement and single market, officially known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It is the EU, not the member states individually, which will negotiate TTIP. If successful, it will create the largest single open economic area in the world, even bigger than Europe's existing single market, and help us set global standards in a world where neither Europe nor even America has that leverage on its own. Where would the UK fit into this, as an independent island, stranded between markets of 450 million and 300 million apiece? Outside the EU, we would have to accept the terms of whatever deal Washington and Brussels decide, with us enjoying no meaningful influence on either side

What is he talking about? If there is a free trade agreement between the EU and the United States how does that affect the eurosceptic position? The majority view among eurosceptics is that Britain would try to retain a much looser arrangement than we have now with the EU, while remaining a key player in the single market.

Despite the alarmism of the europhiles, it is clear that that would be very much in the interests of both Britain and Europe. But even if Britain had to leave the EU and the single market as such, why would it really have any problem with negotiating a free trade deal with both Brussels and Washington or indeed anyone else?

Britain is likely to remain among the top 10 world economies for several decades at least; it is one of the two or three biggest financial centres in the world. It would have a perfectly respectable hand to play, and the downside of losing negotiating allies such as Germany and France could easily be compensated for by the freer hand Britain would have in both unshackling its own economy from European bureaucracy and making separate trade deals of its own.

Much of our inward investment also depends on easy access to the £11tn EU economy. Does anyone think that the UK's revival as a car manufacturing nation is based on the appeal of the British market alone to foreign investors?

Again, these are scare tactics pure and simple. Of course our access to European markets is a selling point for Britain. But why would we lose that access if we renegotiated our relationship with Brussels or left the EU? What, so, in a fit of pique, the EU would impose trade sanctions or punitive tariffs on Britain, provoking a trade war? That would be cutting off their nose to spite their own face. Why, as economic crisis endures with no end in sight, would they seriously contemplate harming their own industry so as to get one over on Britain? Germans won't want to sell cars to Britain if we change our relationship with Brussels? The argument isn't serious.

The remaining two paragraphs are pure bluster. But what is conspicuous about Howe's article is not so much what he did say, as what he didn't say.

The word democracy (or derivatives thereof) is not mentioned once. Nor is the word legitimacy. He seems oblivious to the horrendous crisis significantly caused and significantly exacerbated by the single currency. There is nothing about EU regulations that stifle small business. It is as if the shame and disgrace of the Common Agricultural policy did not exist.

The piece is a sad statement on the paucity of the case he seeks to make. It shouldn't be a great surprise that the British public are unconvinced. But to Geoffrey Howe, it probably is. 

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