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The great EU power trap

Having influence in a powerful European Union means giving it much more power over us

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

Soon after the date for the EU referendum was set, Timothy Garton Ash published a piece in this magazine under the title ‘A conservative case for staying in’. He was followed by Ian Buruma, attacking the idea that, having left the EU, the British would be more free. And then, after the Obama visit to London, there was Anne Applebaum, assuring us that the US had ‘excellent reasons’ for being opposed to Brexit.

Like the little boy at the back of the street brawl in the old Punch cartoon, I want to ask: ‘Is this a private fight, or can any former foreign editor of The Spectator join in?’ Tim Garton Ash was succeeded in that role by Ian Buruma; I came next, and was followed by Anne Applebaum. We all went our separate ways: Ian to teach in the US, Anne to spend much of her time in Poland, and Tim to add lustre to St Antony’s College, Oxford. (I too ended up in Oxford, though at a less Europeanist venue — St Antony’s being the VIP international airport lounge of academia.) I remain friends with all of them. On this issue, however, they will not be surprised to hear that I think they are all mistaken.

We are warned about the possible effect of Brexit on the ‘crisis-torn’ EU, and told that we should not let Europe ‘collapse into protectionism and authoritarianism’, lest it fall prey to ‘disintegration, national hostilities, xenophobia and illiberalism’. The current crisis may be a rather short-term basis on which to decide one’s vote on such a long-term issue, but never mind. Such harping on present dangers raises the obvious question: if this rickety building is under such dangerous stresses and strains, wouldn’t we be safer standing outside it?

Tim Garton Ash replies that withdrawal is not an option for Britain, because throughout our history we have been ‘ineluctably drawn in to the travails of a troubled continent’. This is a common argument among historians: that the British have always needed to protect their strategic interests in continental Europe. But in the past those interests have been ‘strategic’ more or less in the military sense of the term, as we have intervened to curb a hegemonic power — France or Germany — that could threaten us with a blockade or an invasion. Does anyone really imagine that we face such a danger from any western European power today?

Even if that historical argument were valid now, those who wield it would need to explain why the best or perhaps the only way for the UK to defend its strategic interests in Europe is to submit to a European supranational government. Non-membership of the EU does not equal ‘isolationism’. It is surely possible that an independent UK, active on the world stage and remaining a strong member of Nato, would be better placed to defend its long-term interests on the Continent than one which is increasingly obliged to do as European policy–makers say.


It seems deliciously easy to suppose that a united bloc of 28 countries, with 508 million inhabitants, will be a super-powerful force on the world stage. Yet super-power can have super effects only when it is directed at coherent policy goals — which the EU struggles, and often fails, to agree on. The problem here is built into the very nature of the organisation. On many important issues, unanimity among so many countries with very different interests is simply impossible; and when agreement is lacking, the result is a kind of auto-paralysis, where decisive action is ruled out.

We saw this, shamefully, in the case of Bosnia, where the EU dithered until the Americans stepped in to end the war. And in some ways we see it today over Kosovo, where the EU tries to tell that country what to do, while officially having no policy whatsoever on whether it is an independent state, as 23 member states think, or a province of Serbia, as five do.

Much has been made of the idea that Putin would like us to leave the EU. Yet an increasingly neutered EU, trying and failing to make its own coherent foreign policy, would surely serve his purpose better, and his advantage would be all the greater if Britain were locked inside it. Even today it would take only the veto of Cyprus (heavily dependent on Russian money), or Greece (under its passionately pro-Moscow government) to stymie any new anti-Putin policy. Imagine the future implications of this, if the EU realises its long-stated dream of running its own defence policy — a dream which, even if it is not aimed at undermining Nato, might well have that effect, by giving the US the ideal excuse to reduce its involvement in the defence of western Europe.

The obvious solution to the problem of auto-paralysis would be to decide more EU foreign policy by majority voting — as many MEPs have demanded for years. But then Britain would sometimes find itself obliged to obey policies which it did not think beneficial to itself, to Europe or to the world. There is a fundamental issue here, which might be called the supranational power trap: in order to make the supranational body to which we belong genuinely powerful, we must give it much more power over ourselves.

This already happens in ordinary law-making all the time. Currently the UK is on the losing side in one in eight of all majority-vote decisions in the Council of Ministers. No doubt, by the law of averages, there must be some occasions when our small share of the vote (one 28th on the country count, and about one eighth on the population count) plays a decisive role in pushing the total just over the thresholds (55 and 65 per cent, respectively); but mostly the pre-existing majority of other countries will dictate the outcome. Yes, our skilled officials can enter the policy-making process at earlier stages of the process. But they are the officials of just one country out of 28; and in the end it is the vote that decides. When we vote for the winning side, some like to trumpet our ‘influence’. In Aesop’s fable the fly on the chariot’s axle-tree exclaimed: ‘See what a lot of dust I raise!’

For me, the most important issue is the one that flows directly from these problems: the loss of democracy. This huge artificial structure would indeed be paralysed if all decisions required unanimity. But once our laws and policies are made by EU majority voting, we begin to sacrifice the most precious thing of all: the principle that those who make our laws and rule us are chosen by us, and can be removed by us. European elections, and tinkering with the so-called democratic deficit in Brussels, are entirely beside the point here, as the EU is not, for any of its member populations, the primary political community, the ‘demos’ on which genuine democracy is based.

Most advocates of a Remain vote simply ignore this issue. Some contrive to suggest that it is just a matter of accepting technical regulations for the single market — whereas the range of EU law-making does in fact go much further than that. And some like to imply that if people do not want to put themselves under a supranational government, they must be harking back to a nostalgic (and probably right-wing) concept of ‘sovereignty’ which has no validity in the modern world.

Sovereignty is not in fact outmoded. But the term has become so misunderstood that it is probably better to put it aside, in this debate, and just talk about democratic self-government instead. I have yet to hear any leading Remainer explain why this valuable thing — which should be equally precious to both left and right — is worth sacrificing for the benefits, whether geopolitical or economic, that they think we shall get from staying in the EU.

When it suits them, Messrs Cameron and Osborne like to make very long-term predictions about the UK after Brexit, confidently telling us what the economy will be like in 15 years’ time. It is now 40 years since we were last given a referendum, so here is an even longer-term question for them. If we stay in the EU, and if it follows the political trajectory which it has so consistently taken, just what do they think our democratic self-government will be like 40 years from now?

Noel Malcolm is a senior research fellow in history at All Souls College, Oxford.

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