Europhiles have warned us for years of the dangers of Britain leaving the EU. But all the while a different spectre has crept up on their other flank: which is that even if the UK votes to stay in the EU in 2017, we might be one of the only countries left. It’s a radical thought, but if they’d like to consider it, the Europhiles should look at what is happening across the continent.
Pro-EU countries are proving harder and harder to find. The eastern European countries may still be financial net receivers, but they are now having to weigh up their honey pot against the demands that come with it. A project which was meant to bring free movement of labour for themselves is now forcing them to take in thousands of migrants they do not want from across Africa and the Middle East. Anti-EU feeling is growing everywhere, and even the Polish government’s erstwhile plan to ‘progress’ into the eurozone now looks like it will be opposed by the majority of Poles. The ‘irreversible’ turns out to be eminently reversible.
In western Europe, the Euroscepticism that used to be portrayed as a mere embarrassing blight among Tory backbenchers is now breaking out everywhere. Ten years ago Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution, but were soon afterwards signed up for the almost identical Lisbon Treaty. Ten years on, campaigners in Holland have succeeded in collecting far more than the 300,000 signatures they needed to force a Dutch vote on further EU enlargement. One of the authors of that initiative, the Dutch writer and philosopher Thierry Baudet, this week announced that he wants to turn the vote into a debate on Dutch EU membership as a whole.
Public opinion in Holland appears to be gathering behind him. A new poll shows 83 per cent of Dutch voters want ‘more influence’ over future transfers of power to the EU and 61 per cent of the population want a referendum on any further enlargement of the EU. At the same time Baudet and the anti-EU Forum for Democracy which he runs intend to push for a full public inquiry into the circumstances under which Holland joined the euro. In Holland such inquiries tend to be reserved for national disasters. The symbolism is not lost and the inevitable troubles of the Dutch political class, as their manipulations are brought to light, can push public feeling in only one direction.
Everywhere a process of ‘ever-looser union’ may become the only way to hold the EU together. On 3 December it will be Denmark’s turn to go to the polls for a referendum on whether to convert one of the country’s current EU opt-outs into an opt-in. But anti-EU sentiment in Denmark has grown (as it has everywhere else) among citizens watching the EU’s handling of the Greek crisis and now beginning to experience the catastrophically mishandled migration crisis.
All the while, those countries which decided not to join the EU seem to be realising just what a near miss they had. Both of Norway’s referendums on EU membership (in 1972 and 1974) were lost by small percentages, with the number of Norwegians in favour or opposed to joining on both occasions around the 50 per cent mark. Today polls of Norwegians find those keen on EU membership dwindling in the 20 per cents. It is hardly surprising that the EU looks like an ever less attractive club to join. What, after all, is the appeal of joining a club into which the entire world can apparently move?
For years Iceland has had a request pending to join the Union. But earlier this year the country quietly let that application lapse. Its citizens can all see for themselves one of the differences between being in the EU or being outside it. Iceland had a severe financial crisis over the last decade, like Greece. But unlike Greece the Icelandic people had a sovereign parliament and control of their own currency. They found out that after such a calamity it took a couple of years to get level again, but they were able to do what they needed to do and today Iceland is back on its feet. Why would they not see their interests as being better served outside the EU?
Even in the heart of the EU — in the countries that seem to have the institution in their bloodstream — opposition to the whole enterprise is growing. Angela Merkel’s personal popularity has begun to slump even in her own party, and Germany’s Eurosceptic parties are now polling better than they have ever done before. In France it is not only Marine Le Pen who is making noises which might disconcert Brussels. Last year the former president and future presidential contender Nicolas Sarkozy warned that unless half of the EU’s current competencies were returned to member states, the whole EU project would risk imploding.
What must alarm anyone who wants to retain the status quo is that it will only require one country to start stepping back from their current arrangements to set off a cascade of similar efforts across the EU. In Ireland major business leaders are now publicly saying that if the UK decides to leave in 2017, then Ireland should think of stepping out too. The EU’s fiscal crisis has been taken over by a political one, and now across the entire continent the old, legitimate borders are reasserting themselves.
So instead of another two years of trying to terrify British voters into thinking we are the odd men out of Europe, perhaps the Europhiles should consider the possibility that a ‘Yes’ vote in 2017 will in fact make us the odd men in.
The Spectator is hosting an evening discussion ‘Is the EU bad for business?’ at 7pm on Tuesday 20 October at The Royal College of Surgeons, WC2. Speakers include: Dominic Cummings, director of the ‘No’ campaign and Will Straw, executive director of the ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign and is chaired by Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.