NATO: on solidarity

Labour is collectivist by instinct and culture. Founded by the trade unions, it could hardly be otherwise. The welfare state the Attlee Government did so much to build was founded on collective insurance. Labour has stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, minority communities, countries under attack and many others in the past.

Collective security is solidarity by another name. It’s wholly fitting, therefore, that the Attlee Government took the United Kingdom into NATO as a founding member. As the Cold War deepened, western Europe needed the United States to guarantee its security. Not all NATO’s members were always democratic, but it nonetheless bound free Europe to the US. Since then, it has formed the bedrock of British defence policy. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides almost our ultimate insurance – our fallback in an existential crisis.

When the Iron Curtain lifted and the Soviet Union fell, new eastern European democracies wanted to join NATO. Given their history, it’s hardly surprising. On a continent where collective security lost its meaning, Chamberlain and Daladier browbeat Edvard Beneš into signing away the Sudetenland in September 1938. Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler the following March. A Franco-British guarantee meant nothing. In September 1939, Britain and France did honour their guarantee to Poland. Poland still suffered years of unspeakable horror. In 1945, eastern Europe came under Soviet control: the ‘people’s democracies’ only fell in 1989. Again, the West stood aside. You might say the West had little alternative in 1945-8: it’s a sobering and unedifying story nonetheless.

That so many of those countries have now joined the community of Western democracies is a cause for celebration. Churchill’s ‘capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ no longer languish behind an Iron Curtain, but have joined with their sisters to their west. NATO has provided the anchoring for a community of states linked by law to grow together.

The last Labour Government was a good friend to eastern Europe – championing its right to a place in the Western world. And until now, no Labour leader has ever wavered in their support for the Atlantic Alliance. Michael Foot opposed nuclear weapons, but he kept Labour pledged to NATO. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence at present and in public, and his hostility in the past and probably in private, is unique. His opposition to NATO deployment in eastern Europe as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia is deeply misguided. His refusal to say he would defend NATO allies under attack is profoundly dangerous.

In 2017, eastern Europeans have good cause to value their NATO membership. In February 2014, Russia and Estonia signed an (admittedly unratified) agreement finalising their border. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because Ukraine wanted to sign a deal with the European Union. Both countries have large Russian minorities. Both once formed part of the USSR. Granted, Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of self in a way which doesn’t hold true for the Baltics (of course, this doesn’t make its aggression any better). But another crucial difference is the guarantee under Article 5.

It would be unwise enough in normal circumstances to disdain our current insurance policy with no alternative in mind. In these abnormal ones, it is almost farcical in its foolishness. In 2014, a great power annexed a neighbour’s territory on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1945. Its leader is hostile to the liberal international order on which the UK relies, and nothing in his history suggests ‘relationship resets’ or a pacifying stance will appease him. It has links to far right (and radical left) parties in democratic Europe. It props up a toxic but anti-Western regime in Syria. It interfered in the US presidential election and may have even affected the outcome.

Thanks in no small part to the US election, NATO has rarely faced greater threats from within. In eight days’ time, a man whose commitment to European security is questionable will become President of the United States. That Donald Trump and Theresa May agreed on the importance of NATO in a telephone call is of limited comfort, even if he meant what he said. Credibility means everything in deterrence: it matters that Trump once said he wouldn’t mind too much if NATO dissolved, not just whether he continues saying such things as President. This is exactly the moment at which European governments must try to ensure NATO does not wither on the vine. It’s also a moment when NATO’s word must be seen to be its bond. I struggle to imagine a worse time to argue for undermining its shared deterrence strategy in Europe.

History makes clear that Britain cannot ignore the rest of Europe, that its security is bound up with its continent. Brexit does not change the essential fact, however much Nigel Farage might like it to. If the US disengages, Europeans will need to look to our own security: the UK has no opt-out. But in any event, it would be profoundly wrong to let Putin dictate policy in eastern Europe – and even more so to regard any NATO ally as somehow dispensable. I see nothing left-wing about old-style spheres of influence. I see nothing progressive in ignoring eastern Europeans’ right to choose their own destinies. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became liberal democracies by their own free choice. They are our allies. They deserve better than to be treated as our buffer states.

Collective security is vital for democratic Europe. It has not faced such severe threats from without for many years. It has rarely, if ever, seemed more besieged from within. Britain could never separate itself from the fallout if it broke down. And even if it could, it would be an appalling act to abandon our friends and allies to Vladimir Putin. No true progressive should countenance it.

Europe after Brexit: what now?

Brexit is disastrous for the UK, but also a crisis for the EU. Some EU observers (generally firm federalists) have argued Brexit will do the EU a favour, on the basis that an obstructive UK has been an obstacle to building Europe. They are making a serious mistake – one which risks blinding them to how best to mitigate the damage done.

Britain was the second-biggest economy in the EU. It’s now the third-biggest, courtesy of the Leave vote, but it remains one of the major developed economies. It has been a powerful voice for a deeper, more complete single market. In foreign and defence policy, it plays an important role. Granted, Britain is already semi-detached in many areas and was due to become more so. But despite its Government’s worst efforts in recent years, its size and strategic assets have made it an important voice in the EC and then EU since 1973. Now it has set a deadly precedent. A member state pulling out of the EU is no longer an abstract hypothetical, but a real option. Europe’s future may well depend on getting its response right.

British citizens need to show some humility in commenting here. Britain voted to leave: quite fairly, the EU is hardly going to design itself to suit us. Of course, the Bratislava Summit also shows that ‘the EU’ includes many different actors (as ever). I write, though, as a committed European who wants to see the EU survive and prosper.

How should the EU deal with the UK?

Governments of the EU-27 should clearly put the the rest of the EU’s interests first. Britain has the right to decide to leave; it has no right to demand that others continue to go out of their way to help it, having done so. When you leave a club, you forfeit solidarity from the club. The three Brexiteers can bluster all they like; it will only harm their cause, and deservedly so. Frankly, the long-term peace, security and prosperity of Europe are more important than pandering to British exceptionalism.

That said, it isn’t in the EU’s interests to deliberately ‘punish’ the UK. A club of democracies, founded to preserve peace and freedom in Europe, shouldn’t punish a country for voting the wrong way. Further, though Britain is less important to the rest of the EU than it tends to believe, it will be the EU’s largest trading partner on exit and will remain a major player in Atlantic defence and security. A constructive and, preferably, close relationship remains in both sides’ interest.

Overall, the priorities should be: to protect the integrity and viability of the European project; to ensure EU members’ reasonable interests are protected; and to ensure continued cooperation in key areas.

No special punishment, no special deals

The EU should, therefore, neither reward nor punish the UK. Brexit needs to have clear consequences, partly on principle and partly to prevent contagion, and Britain shouldn’t be allowed to escape the fundamental tradeoffs which go with it. But if it is willing to play by the rules, the EU should be willing to play ball.

For instance: the EU should categorically refuse EEA-style single market membership without free movement of labour, the acceptance of relevant single market legislation and a budget contribution. It should, though, be willing to offer the full EEA deal to the UK and seek to persuade the EFTA members to do likewise. And where EEA countries currently join EU initiatives (such as extradition arrangements very close to those in the European Arrest Warrant), the EU should not unreasonably refuse access to a UK in the EEA if it wants it.

In the same way, if London insists on ending free movement, then the EU should be clear that the price is leaving the single market. Any interim EEA-type model should be clearly time-limited, with its endpoint in the EU’s gift and not the UK’s. But the EU-27 should also move a UK trade deal to the front of the queue in these circumstances; the UK will be the EU’s single largest trading partner, so this is in both sides’ interest. And neither side should want the transition to take longer or be messier than necessary.


The EU has one member state uniquely affected by Brexit: Ireland. Joining the EC, as it then was, allowed the UK and Ireland to meet as equal partners for the first time. The open border for people is currently possible because free movement of EU citizens (and EEA workers) applies to both; the open border for goods has been underpinned by the EU customs union, removing any requirement for customs checks and rules of origin at the border. EU membership underpins key aspects of the Belfast Agreement. And though Europe has allowed Ireland to emerge from the UK’s economic orbit, Britain remains a vital trading partner for Ireland.

The Irish Government has every reason to be appalled by Brexit. The economic damage sustained will be greater than for any other state except Britain itself. But more than that: British voters have put the open Irish border at risk. People in Northern Ireland grew up with checkpoints and police queries; now, crossing from Derry to Letterkenny is an uninterrupted bus ride. The Belfast Agreement, the end of the checkpoints, the softening of the Border and a virtual end to its day-to-day presence: all of this was key to devising a version of the United Kingdom which Northern Irish nationalists could tolerate.

The EU should do its best to protect Northern Ireland from the consequences of English and Welsh voters’ decision. Its scope will be much more limited if Britain decides not to seek single market membership in order to end free movement and, especially, if it decides to step outside a customs union with the EU. But the European project was founded to end wars: it should put a peace process above ensuring there are consequences for the UK. Legally, Ireland has a parallel opt-out from the Schengen Area and can opt into EU measures on the ‘area of freedom, security and justice’ (or not), like the UK. Ireland’s consent would be required to end this, but the wording may in some cases need to be amended to reflect Brexit. The EU should not make difficulties here where they can be avoided.

Foreign and defence policy

In foreign policy, the UK will remain a reasonably important power, though greatly diminished by its exit, and far more important to the EU than any other democratic European non-member state. Further, Brexit means the EU’s potential in foreign and defence policy is dramatically reduced.

Obviously, the UK has always insisted that these areas should stay intergovernmental. But it boasts one of the world’s best diplomatic services. It is the EU’s largest defence spender. It has a seat on the Security Council. Its international networks and connections are damaged by Brexit, but close cultural and historic ties remain. It has the second-largest development budget in the world. And so on. EU sanctions without UK involvement are clearly much less effective; and in most areas, the UK and EU will continue to share key interests and views. The EU should therefore regard the UK, along with the US, as one of its most important partners for the purposes of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) – on Ukraine, Iran, the Middle East and more besides.

Following Brexit, enhanced co-operation on defence may well be revisited in the EU. France, Germany, Belgium and others have often raised this. The UK, by contrast, has always had firm limits here, even though it kickstarted the Common Security and Defence Policy with France. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going further, so long as it remains compatible with the Atlantic alliance: the US supports more credible European defence. But the fact remains that one of Europe’s two main military powers is leaving the EU. Franco-British co-operation would probably be more formidable than the EU without Britain. If the UK shows an interest in European defence co-operation, whether on a Franco-British, multilateral or UK-EU basis, Paris and Brussels’ doors should be open.

Beyond Brexit: what should the EU do now?

Since Britain voted Leave, support for the EU has risen in other countries. Given the chaos which ensued in Britain and the evident lack of a plan on the part of its anti-Europeans, perhaps that’s unsurprising. For now, the mess in which the UK has landed itself will be a deterrent – and as the price it will pay becomes apparent, that deterrent may even grow for a few years. In the long term, though, clearly it will remain a developed liberal democracy, and ‘life after the EU’ will now be a concrete possibility.

Eurosceptics’ gifts to Europe

Obviously, the UK has been more sceptical of further integration than any other EU member state – a fact some have cited to claim the EU will gain from its departure. But other countries have often relied on the UK’s outspokenness to avoid picking fights themselves. When the UK deliberately sat on its hands during discussions about ‘political union’ in the 1980s, for instance, it rapidly became clear most other countries did not actually want to go much further than London did. I suspect we may well see other countries being louder about their own reservations in future, now they can’t rely on the UK to pick a fight first.

More importantly, UK politicians’ euroscepticism may well have helped limit the extent to which the EU has drifted from what its peoples will accept. No one who looks at the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in France, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, the anger in Greece, the Dutch vote on the free trade deal with Ukraine or the forthcoming Hungarian referendum on refugee quotas can see anti-EU sentiment as just a British phenomenon. But most other EU countries’ political classes have been more uniformly pro-EU than ours. Britain is an outlier. It’s also Europe’s canary down the mineshaft.

Of course, different countries have different reasons for their scepticism. Worries about migration (either from within or outside the EU) abound. The Dutch, like Britain, worry about whether other EU members follow the rules. The Spanish, Greeks and Italians resent ‘EU-imposed austerity’. The French worry about l’Europe libérale and were always unenthusiastic at best about enlargement. The Nordics, like Britain, have always been relative sceptics. Eastern Europeans only regained real sovereignty from the Soviets a quarter-century ago: they are in no hurry to hand too much of it over again, even on a democratic basis. But the fact that these reasons are so different is exactly the point. Europe’s peoples don’t agree on enough about their preferred destinations, at least for now, for the EU to just march boldly forward after Brexit.

I am a passionate pro-European. I always have been. The first vote I ever cast helped elect the first European Parliament to include eight former Communist states, thanks to the enlargement which is one of our continent’s finest achievements – a Europe whole and free. I will never dismiss how precious it is that EU members don’t even consider war with each other, and I give the EU a huge amount of the credit for that. In an ideal world, I am a European federalist. I believe in European integration, for all Europeans’ sake.

But its most important gifts are twofold: a guarantee that Europeans settle their affairs by rules and laws, not force and armies; and the entrenchment of a constitutional, democratic continent. Its institutions and powers are vital means to those ends (a basic point the British have refused to understand), but they are not ends in themselves. Without a large Eurosceptic member state as a check, the gap between Europe and its peoples could well bring the whole union crashing down. The European ideal must not be sacrificed to European federalism.

Stop, look and listen

Responding with a great leap forward in terms of powers is thus exactly what the EU should not do. European integration is not a bicycle; it won’t fall over if it doesn’t go forever forward in all circumstances. There is, clearly, a vital debate about what powers are necessary to make the eurozone function as a currency union – that was true before 23 June and it’s still true now. But beyond that, EU member states and institutions should state plainly that no major new initiatives to pool more sovereignty are expected for the currently foreseeable future.

EU institutions and governments should, instead, focus on what Europe can do within its current powers to help its citizens, and to show they actually do have some control over the EU. Jobs and economic growth are, obviously, vital here. The exact blend of completing the single market and a strong set of social standards needs to be debated: I suspect explicitly linking the two might both help Europe’s economies and reassure some of its sceptics. A stronger focus on new industries and growth areas throughout the EU, and a commitment by national governments to actually tell their voters what the EU has added, would help too. It may well be worth doing things designed to help job opportunities in Eastern Europe, expressly aiming to reduce migration flows to western Europe. These are only broad-brush points: but they suggest a direction of travel.

Finally, the EU needs to assure its citizens that there are limits to how far its borders will go. Enlargement has been one of the EU’s great successes, which the UK championed. No one should apologise for the enlargement to eastern Europe: bringing the former Communist states into a community of democratic states embodies the best of Europe’s values. The EU is a vital anchor for the security and stability of the Western Balkans – the Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, helped enormously by their wish to join the EU, is a powerful example.

But as the UK’s referendum showed, Turkish membership of the EU is toxic with too many voters in too many countries. In reality, we know it’s not really going to happen – too many governments oppose it and Turkey is rushing headlong away from being in any way eligible to join. But while you can usually get away with meaningless promises in foreign policy, in domestic politics they frighten voters and leach public consent. Turkish accession is dead: the EU should, when it can find a geopolitically acceptable moment, tell its peoples so.

Fireproofing Europe

The first step to making the best of things is to recognise how bad they are. Britain will lose much more than the rest of Europe from its decision, but this is a body blow to the EU nonetheless. This is not good news, or insignificant. Britain’s decision has badly damaged the network of institutions on which Europe relies. It has also delivered a deadly warning, which the EU can heed – or not.

The EU should neither indulge nor punish the UK. Britain needs to accept that Brexit has consequences, choose its tradeoffs and then live with its decisions. But though it’s clear who needs whom more, the EU nonetheless has no interest in a disorderly break-up, or any more acrimony than can be helped. So while refusing to spare the UK the consequences of its choice through some sort of sweetheart deal, it should stand ready to put the EEA or a deep free trade deal on the table. And it should see the UK as a major partner for the future in the affairs of Europe as a whole.

More important is how the EU conducts itself to try and prevent future Brexits. It would be a serious mistake to respond to the crisis by pushing integration further and faster: the democratic elastic binding Europe and its nations is stretching dangerously thin as matters stand. Better to consolidate, to show what Europe can do for its peoples with the powers it already has and to address their fears.

23 June was a dark day for Britain and for Europe. Nothing will change that. It is already a (self-inflicted) tragedy for Britain’s future, role in the world and reputation. Europeans, including British Europeans, can only hope the EU does not let it become the first act in a tragedy engulfing the whole Union.

You may also be interested in my blog from June on how the UK should approach Brexit, following the referendum.

This piece was subsequently amended to highlight the fact that the EU customs union is the key challenge relating to the Irish Border.

In Europe, on principle

Pro-Europeans will, for the most part, fight the EU referendum on pragmatism, ideas of Britain and the risks of leaving, and for good reason: these matter far more to most voters than the abstract idea of Europe. Most British people see the EU as a question of pros and cons. Plenty of people will make those arguments. But on Europe, I am an unashamed idealist. I believe in the European idea; I believe in the EU’s moral purpose.

Why so? For all its many faults, the EU has done more than any other organisation in history not only to help countries to co-operate, but to change the very way they relate to each other – to create a government of laws and not of men between countries and not just within them. ‘Classical’ international relations are ultimately based on power; on might making right; on the short-term and long-term calculus of interests between states, with all the insecurity and destruction that often entails. In the EU, we have rules, laws, votes and courts.

Once upon a time, Belgium was the cockpit of western Europe. It was handed from Spanish kings to Austrian Emperors; studded with Dutch-garrisoned and British-funded forts; fought over, traversed, occupied; handed to the Netherlands; given neutrality and independence; and then invaded twice in the last century, devastated twice. Now it can take its turn in the Presidency of the EU, jointly shape rules which govern much of the continent and host a directly-elected parliament representing the countries which once tore it apart.

We don’t just know we’d be mad to fight each other or conclude we have no interest in doing so: we don’t think about each other in that way anymore. Even countries like Norway and Switzerland are really debating how much they wish to integrate with the EU and how much having a direct say matters to them, not whether to be in the EU system at all. NATO and the nuclear balance may have made war impractical; the EU made it unthinkable.

The EU has promoted the rule of law within states, not just between them. We take democratic Greece, Spain, Portugal and eastern Europe for granted: but in fact, it’s astounding how far constitutional, liberal norms have been entrenched across those countries. Despite the (very real) concerns in Poland and Hungary, the creation of a swathe of liberal democracies in such a short period of time is not typical, and the European idea played a huge role in making it happen. Because countries wanted to join, they had to meet EU standards for democracies, not just markets – and not just elections, but courts, civil society and the civil service too. Britain played a major role here: as Margaret Thatcher said in her Bruges Speech, ‘We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities.’

If you doubt whether EU enlargement matters, look at what happens when the EU cannot deliver on its promises. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first took office, his government abolished the death penalty and started to improve conditions for the Kurds; Kurdish parliamentarians were released from prison, the State Security Courts were abolished and more besides. This went hand in hand with the opening of accession negotiations in 2005. As we all know, the negotiations slowed down, ground to a halt and mostly froze. The shift back to more authoritarian governance has gone hand in hand with drifting away from Europe. Macedonia had brought itself to the point where the Commission recommended accession talks; the name dispute froze the process, and we now find ourselves with a country which cannot hold credible elections in April. The EU’s not the only factor, but the contrast between countries where the EU can deliver and those where it cannot tells a powerful story.

It’s overwhelmingly in our interests to support the EU and thus a more democratic, stable, peaceful continent. Britain never could afford to stand aloof from the rest of Europe when the chips were down. But this isn’t just about that: it’s about the kind of country we want to be. I don’t want us to be the kind of country which turns its back on friends and allies; I don’t want us to define ourselves by our isolation; I want us to pride ourselves on the contribution we make to our continent and our world, not just what we get from them. Britain has, for better and for worse, almost always been engaged in the world. We now have the second-largest development budget, a seat on the Security Council, membership of the G7 – and a key place in the European Union.

We have been awkward partners in Europe, yes, but we have contributed a great deal to it too – a key role in promoting the single market, championing enlargement, co-operating on security and defence. We cannot run Europe alone: no one country can and no one country should. But we can play our part: our voice usually is heard. Germany, the Nordic countries, the Baltics and the eastern European states fear our exit precisely because we do have a voice in Europe, with which they often agree, and without which Europe would be the poorer.

It is too easy – far too easy – to be complacent about the relatively peaceful continent we now have. 70 years of peace in liberal-democratic, welfare-capitalist Europe have made it all but impossible for us to imagine the veneer of civilisation cracking again. But civilised, developed, democratic peoples descended to the depths before, and it could always happen again someday. The EU is a tool to keep states civilised in Europe; to make co-operation the norm rather than conflict; to produce fudged compromises rather than pitched battles; to try, as best we can, to work together on the basis of rules and not of might.

The EU is only one institution welding the Euro-Atlantic world together, along with NATO, the Council of Europe and others: no one is saying the end of the EU means an immediate descent into barbarism. Perhaps we’d all cope if it fell apart. But if Europe reverted to an unmitigated patchwork of squabbling states, if its ineffectuality sapped America’s will to guarantee its security, if Putin’s Russia fomented instability on democratic Europe’s border, what kind of Europe might we end up with? War in our lifetimes: almost certainly not. War in our children’s lifetimes: probably not. But war in our grandchildren’s lifetimes? This Europe can fail too: all other attempts to keep the peace in Europe have collapsed so far.

The European Union embodies a fine and precious ideal. It has changed the way Europeans deal with each other and helped spread democracy across Europe; it is a project to which Britain has given and from which we have gained a great deal. And like any fine ideal, it could collapse and fail. The EU is at risk already. It would be a tragedy, and a betrayal of our own best instincts, if Britain dealt one of the blows which tore it apart.

The single market: you can’t write the rules of the game on your own

It’s one of the interesting things about the Conservative Party’s EU crises: the militant Europhobes force the more moderate Eurosceptics to sound both more and less anti-EU. So we have David Cameron referring to the European Union’s achievements as a “precious thing” at the same time as he talks about using the eurozone crisis to repatriate powers from Brussels. Boris Johnson accepts that the City wouldn’t want the UK to find itself without a vote on single market rules, while he argues that we should opt out of pretty well everything else. And David Lidington talks about repatriation of powers, in order to “feel comfortable with membership of the EU”.

Lidington is no swivel-eyed Brussels-hater: he can see why some form of European co-operation matters. And clearly, you can have major opt-outs within an EU framework (the euro, the abolition of passport controls, large areas of justice and home affairs) – and this will increase for the UK and for at least some other EU member states, as the eurozone integrates further.

However, the fact that other EU member states are going to need to integrate further in order to make the eurozone viable does not mean that they will suddenly agree to grant the UK a whole series of opt-outs on existing agreements. The UK already has pretty much zero goodwill left right now with most of its European partners. It isn’t hard to see exactly what they would think of London for deciding to halt the very measures it has called for the eurozone to take – which it has called vital for the sake of the global economy – in order to settle a purely domestic debate about ‘Brussels’. Furthermore, they would be very likely to do exactly what they have already done with the Fiscal Compact: that is, move ahead outside the EU Treaties and hope to incorporate the new measures later on. Depending on the exact reforms involved, this could be more difficult to achieve, but the amount which can be done without Britain’s say-so is likely to be a great deal more than Tory hardliners like to think.

Part of the problem is that the British are underestimating the commitment, when push comes to shove, of most of Europe’s political elites to the euro. They always do. They assumed that EMU would never actually happen; then they assumed it would never launch in 1999; many of them assumed in 2011 that eurozone governments would let the eurozone fall apart. They won’t – partly because they’re terrified of the consequences (and rightly), but also because they are committed to European integration in a way which London is not. British elites (mostly) see the putative collapse of the euro as an economic disaster: so do most continental ones, but they also see it as a disaster for the European idea. In the end, therefore, the rest of Europe simply will not be willing to let British self-obsession wreck the whole show: and the experience of the Fiscal Compact shows that they will probably find a way to stop it from doing so.

The other point which the British fail to see is the way in which other governments view their particular demands. Many Britons talk about focusing on the single market and nothing else. For most other Europeans, social and employment law aren’t separate from the single market, but part of the package. In order to remove barriers among ourselves to commerce and trade, we have some common rules to ensure that national rules aren’t putting new barriers in place. Most of these are meant to ensure that our laws are similar enough that we can recognise each others’ and thus operate freely in each other’s countries. From the point of view of other Europeans, if we’re going to remove those barriers, then part of the common framework should be a certain set of minimum standards of how European workers are treated, to prevent a race to the bottom.

So other European governments are going to see this as an attempt to access the single market without playing by its rules – and to undercut their own businesses in the process, by being allowed to treat employees in a way which none of them would tolerate. This is one thing from developing countries, who frequently compete on labour costs, for obvious reasons: it’s quite another thing from a fully developed country which joined the Social Chapter over 15 years ago. Furthermore, it’s dangerous to the whole concept: if one country can unpick bits and pieces of the single market, why can’t another? And where does it all stop?

Some commentators in Britain talk about Germany as a potential ally in helping London here. If anything, Germany is likely to be particularly stern in its opposition: it takes rules seriously. Angela Merkel may well want Britain to be involved in moving the EU in a free-market direction: that’s different from letting Britain drop the regulations and leave the others to it.

It’s perfectly true that other EU members want to ensure that eurozone integration doesn’t exclude non-euro countries from decision-making about the single market, either in theory or in practice. That is a separate, crucial debate. However, no other EU government wants to unravel large parts of what the EU has already created or to allow one country to duck out of anything it sees as inconvenient. And they won’t allow Britain to impose it on them.

If I were an MP in today’s EU debate

“Mr Speaker, I do not intend to vote for the motion put forward by the right honourable Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). Nor do I intend to support the amendment from the right honourable Member for Brighton Pavilion (Ms Lucas). But I do accept that they have pointed, whether they intended to or not, to a failing which too many of us in this House have shared. For too long, we have allowed the case for European co-operation to go by default. We have allowed too many myths to root themselves in our debate about European co-operation. Those of us who believe in that project risk reaping a whirlwind in years to come: and the very incoherence of the motion before us exposes how much we have allowed to go by default.

“Perhaps the first thing honourable Members on all sides should recognise is this: the United Kingdom cannot, however many ballot papers its authorities may put together calling for any particular proposal on its relationship with the rest of the EU, impose that proposal upon its twenty-six fellow member states. This is not a matter of anti-democratic resistance by Berlin, Paris, Brussels or any other capital: it is simply a fact that this country has signed up to treaties, multilaterally negotiated and individually ratified, which impose obligations. If it wishes to leave, pure and simple, it may do so. It cannot rewrite the rules to suit itself, with major consequences for its neighbours, and then simply present the document for their signature.

“Any referendum question which proposes to guarantee anything more than our continued membership of, or definite departure from, the European Union is thus a fantasy. We might almost as well call a referendum on our preferred approach to devolution in Catalonia. There is no way that France, Germany or anyone else will let us use such a referendum as a means of overriding their own electorates – who, I should add, are very likely to see Conservative Members’ desire for opt-outs and half-way houses as the worst sort of social dumping. It cannot and will not pass. Honourable Members do no favours to their own call for an honest debate by touting such a proposal.

“The second thing honourable Members would do well to recognise is this: Britain’s departure from the European Union would not terminate the EU. However much some Members may wish it away, there will still be an organisation covering most European states, which pools sovereignty for common goals. Mr Speaker, to believe that our own policies will cease to be affected by the organisation including our most important trading partners, our nearest neighbours and our only direct borders is to believe in fairy tales. We might be a larger Norway – even a larger Switzerland – but, outside the EU, that is what we would be.

“This sort of fallacy has produced the absurdity where Britain, in return for not joining in an EU initiative, has to beg to be allowed into the very meetings which decide its fate. I am certainly not calling for British entry to the Eurozone now. But we cannot delude ourselves. The Eurozone crisis endangers our economy as much as anyone else’s. Not being in the euro allowed us the luxury of competitive devaluation in 2009; it may limit the size of our contribution to funding a solution to the crisis today. But if disaster strikes, it will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover; and not being in the Eurozone means we can do less to stop it from striking.

“Do we wish to be in that position in the Single Market, asking Ireland, or Denmark, or Finland, to put our case in the Council of Ministers as the rules are decided: rules which we must then accept as the price of access to that market? That is what Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland do. Many in this place complain of this or that EU regulation as it is: do they believe that the other members of the Union will do a better job of stopping new ones without Britain at the table? We might be exempt from the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy: but, Mr Speaker, does the House honestly believe that these are more important to the British economy than liberalising services – worth 70% of that economy?

“I agree with the Eurosceptics that this is about democracy. It is about co-operative democracy versus impotent separation. It is about the right of this country, sitting at the top table in Brussels, to share in decisions which affect us all – and defending that right from those whose dislike of shared decisions runs so deep that they prefer imposed decisions instead. We have, for far too long, allowed Eurosceptics to capture the language of democracy. Perhaps they believe that, so long as they keep ministers in London rather than in Brussels, it does not matter that they will be waiting by the fax rather than drawing up the text.

“Mr Speaker, if the House wishes to make our relationship with the EU more democratic, it could more profitably put its own affairs in order. Our Parliament is strikingly behind the times in scrutinising its government’s actions in the EU. Where is the campaign to make Ministers more accountable to this House for their decisions in Brussels? Who lobbies for the importation of the Danish, or Finnish, or Austrian models of scrutiny? Does the honourable Member for Bury North not worry that his honourable Friends have no input into their negotiating brief from this House?

“Too many of those who want to leave the EU do not really want to do it on democratic grounds at all. They want separation. They believe – perhaps they want to believe – that we can and should minimise our involvement with our nearest neighbours; they are willing to sacrifice great influence over all EU rules for the sake of meagre insulation from some EU rules. Mr Speaker, it is a very poor bargain for this country to strike.

“Mr Speaker, in return for pooling some sovereignty with our neighbours – and sacrificing some formal control over some decisions – we gain enormously in our practical ability to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The European Union requires us to share some formal power, but I can think of few political arrangements which do more to increase this country’s real power over its own destiny – on the economy, on environmental policy, on international trade, on relations with Iran.

“No credible government of this country is likely to support the wilder anti-Europeanism embodied in this motion: as the Foreign Secretary can testify, the most hardened Eurosceptic tends to make the most surprising accommodation to reality on entering office. The referendum questions are the definition of a false choice. They would do nothing to settle the divisions in Britain on this issue; they are no substitute for representative democracy doing its work. They are based on an entirely false set of assumptions about what Britain can and cannot demand; their purchase comes from an entirely false set of assumptions about the nature of our EU membership. That such a thin set of proposals can be seen as serious proposals shows how many myths pro-Europeans have left to fester.

“I believe it is time for pro-Europeans to nail their colours to the mast. I accept we have failed to make the case for Europe to many of our fellow citizens. But we cannot start to do that on the basis of a false set of choices. Nor can we do it by passing the buck to a referendum and relying on the natural tendency of referendums to favour the status quo. This is our job: I hope the House will reject the motion and then start doing it.”