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.

Brexit as if the 48% mattered

‘Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it’ means virtually nothing. But the mood music is getting clearer now: and it sounds grim for pro-Europeans and moderate Leavers.

Robert Peston cites reliable sources saying the Government wants a ‘Canada-plus’ deal. Canada’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is a so-called deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, which scraps almost all tariffs and tackles a large number of non-tariff barriers. The UK would, however, seek an agreement which extended much further into services as well as goods. (CETA theoretically covers services, but there are hundreds of exceptions – and crucially for Britain, it has no financial services passport.) This is to secure an end to free movement, an end to implementing EU law and an end to compulsory payments to the EU budget.

Even if secured, ‘Canada-plus’ means hard Brexit. Britain would leave the single market – which delivers freer trade than any other arrangement anywhere in the world. As the Treasury and others warned, leaving the single market means much greater economic damage. Canada would want a much deeper relationship than CETA for a market as important to them as the EU is to us. And of course, we still have no idea what other forms of co-operation the Government wants to keep.

Peston’s sources only claim a 75% chance of getting this deal. He rightly describes this as a ‘wholly spurious probability’. Only one relationship with the EU offers membership of the single market in services: the European Economic Area (EEA). Switzerland – the next closest partner – has de facto membership for goods, but not services. CETA is much less complete than the Swiss bilateral agreements. And if you think France will allow our financial services to operate freely in the EU while we leave the single market, I have a bridge to sell you. CETA took five years to negotiate (2009-2014) and still isn’t in force. Depending on a court case, every individual EU member may need to ratify the deal. And how does an Investment Tribunal improve on a proper European Court of Justice?

I’m frightened that, while this happens, Remain voters and politicians are focusing on trying to block Brexit via the Lords, launching court cases over triggering Article 50 and so on. While we all talk about whether we can reverse Brexit on the sidelines, in the here and now we’re taking our eyes off the ball and ignoring the real fight. Whatever you think about a second referendum, we have a Government committed to enacting Brexit in power until (by default) 2020. Its manifesto promised to enact the outcome of the referendum. In this Parliament, MPs won’t try to reverse the choice of 52% of voters on a 72% turnout without a clear electoral mandate to do so.

While we have that argument, Brexit is being defined by a Conservative Prime Minister under pressure from the Tory Right. The Leave vote must be honoured unless opinion changes, the public want to revisit the issue and they then vote for a volte-face. But Britain is a liberal democracy, not a pure majoritarian state, and the 48%’s concerns deserve a hearing. There is no democratic or moral reason to define Brexit in its most hard-line advocates’ terms. Further, the polling suggests most people prioritise the single market over ending free movement. This includes an overwhelming majority of Remainers and a significant share of Leavers.

Joining the EEA, like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, would be far less damaging than a Canada-style deal. Fisheries and agriculture aside, the UK would stay in the single market. We would keep the services passport, so financial services could still operate. Customs barriers would be imposed, but the UK could thus negotiate its own trade deals. There are some limited differences on free movement. The EEA already exists: following an ‘off-the-shelf’ single market model reduces the risk of ending up in limbo after Brexit.

There are hurdles: first, Britain would need to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). It is not guaranteed that the UK would be allowed to join EFTA or the EEA. But a constructive UK Government could give EFTA more heft in striking trade deals. It could also (potentially) increase EFTA EEA members’ leverage vis-à-vis the EU. Britain would need to assure partners it would not destabilise the EEA, and it could fairly point to its good record in transposing directives. But there is a potential deal here. EEA membership, staying in the Emissions Trading Scheme and European Arrest Warrant and working together on foreign and security policy, could add up to a ‘pro-European Brexit’.

The Conservatives only have a majority of 12 in Parliament. Most Tory MPs, at least in public, favoured a Remain vote. Many Leave voters and MPs supported a ‘liberal’ Brexit. We could therefore build a majority in the Commons and the country for a much less damaging approach than the Government’s. A majority in the Lords would probably resist a hard Brexit, if offered an alternative.

The Scottish and Welsh Governments, most Northern Irish parties and the London Mayor backed Remain. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London’s voters did, too. It is currently disputed whether the devolved legislatures should pass legislative consent motions for enacting Brexit. If Westminster insists on a hard Brexit, I cannot see why they should have to vote for them. And if Theresa May doesn’t want to alienate Scots further, she should be willing to meet them halfway.

Labour MPs need to lead the fight in Parliament – working with Tory Remainers, the Lib Dems, the SNP and others. A competent leader who supports the European cause would help enormously. Failing that, MPs and peers must co-operate anyway, in the national and continental interest.

Pro-Europeans must be realistic. For, our battle is now to control the shape of Brexit – to minimise the damage and to stop leaving the EU from meaning leaving Europe altogether. So far, we’re neither fighting hard enough nor focusing our efforts. That has to change. If it doesn’t, leaving the EU will be wholly defined by our opponents.

Brexit: breaking the fall

The people have spoken: they voted to leave the European Union. The margin was far from large, but it was clear – too clear to blame on people who changed their mind after the vote, or people who thought Remain would win anyway, or poor weather in London. My country has, however narrowly, turned its back on a union in which I passionately believe. It is by far the most personally devastating political defeat I have ever experienced.

I cannot pretend that I think this is anything other than a terrible misjudgment on a historic scale. The impact on our economy will be profound, as we can already see; a deeply-divided kingdom will be riven further; our influence in the world is in free-fall, our allies either alienated or bemused; and we have dealt a grave blow to one of the key pillars of security and stability on the continent of Europe. Britain is currently the pariah of the Western world. It is a damning indictment of our political leadership that we have reached this point.

However, disastrous as it may be, Brexit is now the reality with which we will have to grapple. The mendacity of the Leave campaign does not mean the verdict can be overturned: the electorate may have been misinformed about the details and the facts, they may have been lied to repeatedly and on a grand scale, but they made a judgment and will not take kindly to politicians trying to overrule it. A second referendum would be a case of ‘once more, with feeling’: a government which tried to ignore the one we’ve held would be crucified by the voters. Britain is leaving the EU. We will have to try and contain the damage.

The price of rejectionism

The first step is a cold, clear-eyed recognition of the position in which we find ourselves. Our EU partners believe (whether you agree with them or not) they went as far as they could to accommodate British exceptionalism. They feel the UK has had a special deal for decades: a special rebate, opt-outs from the euro and Schengen, the ability to pick and mix on justice and home affairs and so on, augmented further by the deal Cameron negotiated.

Very understandably, they now feel the British electorate has just slapped them in the face, egged on by the politicians who encouraged them to vote themselves out of Europe. They noted the rhetoric and the tone of the Leave campaign. They heard when people exulted over a potential collapse of the EU. These are now the people whose goodwill we need – and partly as result of voting Leave and partly because of the tone of the campaign, we are currently very short on goodwill. If you doubt that, you need only watch a few of Monday’s speeches in the European Parliament.

Further, the EU’s priority will (rightly) be preventing the unravelling of the whole EU. Britain cannot be seen to benefit from a special deal where it secures everything it wants from the EU and nothing it dislikes. The whole EU bargain relies on a common corpus of rules and institutions to deliver a common good. This is not vengeance: it’s self-preservation. If the deal breaks down, so ultimately does the single market, the EU as a whole and one of the chief pillars of the European order. We will not secure a deal as good as the one we just rejected: we will pay a price.

If the next UK Government wishes to serve its country, it will recognise this as soon as it can. We are supplicants to a Union we have just spurned and which holds almost all the cards. Nationalist delight had better give way to hard realism, and to a hefty dose of humility, very quickly. We need to build bridges as best we can and choose our priorities. And if Boris Johnson actually believes we can secure single market membership, an end to free movement and an exit from the body of EU law, things are even worse than I thought. All we can be sure of is that we will not secure everything we want.

How to start

It is now for Britain to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union: our EU partners will not begin formal or informal talks until we have done so. Clearly, the UK is in no position to do this now due to our more or less total lack of political leadership, and we must hope the turmoil in both major parties will be an opportunity to clarify what kind of arrangement the UK seeks – but it is not in our interests to be truculent about it. If we need more time, our best hope is to allow passions to cool and hope it can be granted in as constructive a spirit as possible in 2018/19.

The next UK Government should also, as a priority, state that a successful, prosperous European Union with which it would continue to work closely remains a vital UK interest. One of the things which especially enraged other EU governments (who are much more conscious than the British of the depths to which Europe once descended) was the casual references by too many British politicians to unravelling the EU or – utterly irresponsibly – ‘liberating’ the continent. This kind of language plays into our neighbours’ deepest fears; it intensifies the incentive to ensure we pay the heaviest possible price for our departure; it refers to an event which not even sane Brexiters should want to see, namely the disorderly unravelling of Europe; there should be no more of it.

Finally: the terms of UK exit have to be approved by an enhanced qualified majority of the other EU members and by the European Parliament. But if the UK wants to secure either single market membership via the European Economic Area or, at the very least, a deep and comprehensive free trade deal which addresses at least some non-tariff barriers, it is very likely that some or all of the required treaties will be ‘mixed agreements’ and need to be ratified by all EU member states. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein would also need to ratify EEA membership.1 We cannot afford to neglect a single EU or EEA member state: in fact, we will have to conduct the most intensive charm offensive ever mounted by the Foreign Office. If you want a sense of how prepared we currently are, consider this: we don’t actually have an Embassy, or even an honorary consul, in Liechtenstein.

Markets or migration?

Some Brexiters now claim the Leave vote was not fundamentally about immigration. Few Remain campaigners will take them very seriously: some of the polling may well show sovereignty as the number one reason for voting Leave, but immigration is the salient policy area substantially affected by EU membership. Leave’s surge came very shortly after it abandoned the economy and went for an outright anti-immigration pitch.

However, there is no escaping the trade-off. It was quite clear before the referendum, however much Vote Leave tried to deny it: free movement comes with single market membership. Britain’s decision does not change that. Switzerland’s access to the single market only extends to de facto membership (more or less) for goods, its links to the EU are looser than the EEA, and yet free movement remains the price of access. The free movement of goods, services, capital and labour go together: the EU will not disentangle them to please the country which has just plunged it into crisis. And leaving the single market will do far more damage to working people than immigration ever would (even if you believe the overall level would reduce radically, which I don’t).

It follows that I believe the EEA is the least-worst option now available to us. EEA membership of the single market is less comprehensive than EU membership. It involves new barriers, because the EFTA countries aren’t in the customs union: they negotiate their own trade deals, which means customs checks between Norway and Sweden. We know these new barriers will do significant economic damage, but they’re unavoidable, given that the EU will no longer negotiate trade deals on our behalf in any scenario.

Can it be sustained politically? Quite apart from free movement, I suspect it will be very difficult indeed. The EEA entails accepting most EU laws relating to the single market: ‘bendy bananas’ were always a lie from the anti-EU press, but the lie won’t become any harder to spread. Unlike now, we will lose our vote on those laws: the notional right to decline to apply them is accompanied by an EU right to suspend single market access in the relevant areas (though for the centre-left, the EEA thus preserves EU social rules and stops Conservative governments from initiating a race to the bottom). Consultation is time-limited; Norway finds its influence is generally very limited; and even though Britain is a much larger country, the EU will not, as a point of principle, allow it to exert anything like the influence of a member state.

However, EEA membership does allow us to pursue our own trade deals (in reality, we get better trade deals via the EU, but Leavers have always said this is what they want); the UK would leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, always eurosceptic bugbears; our budget contribution might be somewhat reduced (our budget rebate would almost certainly go, but the budgetary imbalance for which it compensates arises in large part from the CAP); and we would be released from co-operation outside the single market unless we struck separate agreements with the EU (as Norway has).

The EEA is an existing arrangement, which is in some ways easier to negotiate than a bespoke deal, and it could be defended as an option in line with our divided country. 48% of voters chose to remain in the EU. Leave won a clear victory, but it was far from overwhelming. Norway’s EEA membership operates as a compromise between its pro- and anti-EU camps; if at all possible, the next British Government should take the same approach. If we cannot, the economic damage to our country will be far greater.

Can we secure that from the EU institutions and all EEA states? Again, how the UK Government conducts itself will be critical. To put it at its mildest, it is not currently obvious to our partners that we are capable of co-operating amicably with the EU institutions within any framework. The EEA does, as Leave campaigners occasionally pointed out, afford non-EU members a theoretical right to decline to implement EEA directives, in response to which the EU can suspend single market access for the relevant area for that member. Norway has only made use of this once (temporarily): Britain may well be less co-operative. Others could have very serious reservations about whether or not UK obstructionism could destabilise the EEA Agreement, with serious consequences for the EEA members as well as the EU (which has quite enough headaches from the Swiss bilateral approach and will not particularly wish to give itself more via the EEA). We have a great deal to prove.

There is one thing which could, at least, help address voters’ concerns on migration without reducing single market access even further. Rightly or wrongly, it is not just the British electorate which is profoundly antagonistic to the idea of free movement to and from Turkey. EU-watchers have known for years that Turkish membership is not really on the cards; the Cyprus dispute (making both Cyprus and Greece insurmountable blocks to unanimous agreement), the opposition of the French and German centre-right, Austria’s clear hostility and the Turkish drift away from Europe and towards authoritarianism have all reduced accession to the status of a pipe dream. We do not say so for geopolitical reasons, linked partly to Turkey’s role in NATO and partly to its importance in the Middle East. But the issue is corrosive throughout Europe. We have, of course, now given up our say on this: but in the interests of appeasing the electorates of the other 27 members, the EU should probably find an appropriate time (itself a difficult task) to admit that this ambition has run its course. This could help calm the debate in Britain too.

More than markets

Remain argued, rightly, that there were many other areas where the UK’s EU membership benefited the country. Leave campaigners have said, too, that the UK will continue to work with the EU on a whole host of issues. The UK must now look at areas where it wishes to continue co-operation. Again, it will not necessarily be easy, and the cards are in the EU’s gift rather than ours. But some examples follow.

The EU is a major international actor on climate change, and the UK has in the past taken a leading role here via the EU. Clearly our current Government is rather less interested in this than its predecessors, but a future UK Government should wish to preserve its membership of the EU’s Emissions Trading System. At present, all EEA countries are members; the UK has major potential in renewable energy if it cares to use it, which would be to its benefit in an ETS context; and our pro-market (and ideally pro-single market) ruling party should surely be supportive of market-based mechanisms for emissions reduction.

Leaving the EU means losing the European Arrest Warrant, which is bad news for UK law enforcement. (If you doubted our role in this area: the head of Europol is, for now at least, British.) However, Iceland and Norway are effectively in the process of joining most aspects of the EAW: it would seem sensible for the UK to look into whether it could do something similar. (Again, the Foreign Office needs to ensure its EU charm offensive includes EEA members.)

One crucial priority for the UK must be Northern Ireland’s relationship with Ireland. It remains astonishing to me that a Northern Ireland Secretary could advocate Brexit and retain her position. Even an EEA-style relationship with the EU would involve customs checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland, though they can be spot checks. An urgent priority for the UK must be to ensure an open border is retained if at all possible, in close coordination with the Irish Government, along with continuing reciprocal rights for UK and Irish citizens, whatever the future status of other EU nationals. Accepting the EEA and thus free movement would make this much more feasible: if the UK insists on leaving the single market for this purpose, we face a fundamental challenge on our only land border.

Once we’ve left

We cannot excise ourselves from our continent, however much Nigel Farage might want us to: we will remain, to some degree, a European power. The EU and its members need to be a crucial part of UK foreign policy going forward, as important as our relations with the US: forfeiting our vote in the EU both diminishes our ability to wield influence and makes it more important. We will, if anything, have to work harder at it than before.

That means the UK Representation to the European Union needs to be maintained in full force. Other forums in which European states meet – NATO and the Council of Europe in particular – also become all the more important for us. We should resist the Conservatives’ attempts to undermine our signature to the European Convention on Human Rights (the Council of Europe’s greatest instrument) as a matter of foreign policy as well as human rights principles.

One of the few areas in which UK-EU negotiations may be rather more equal, in fact, is foreign policy and defence. For all its self-imposed isolation, the UK remains one of the two major defence powers in democratic Europe, with one of its best diplomatic networks around the world and a major role in Western security. The anti-Europeanism of much of the Conservative Party didn’t prevent strengthened Franco-British co-operation in defence outside the EU framework: we should pursue and intensify such efforts, as well as our emphasis on NATO, both before and after Brexit.

Finally: Brexit damages our trading and other links with the world at large, not just with the rest of the EU. The Leave campaign claimed it would help us build our links: now the next UK Government will have to try and make good on their promises. As a market of 65 million rather than 500 million starting from scratch, we will inevitably be further to the back of the queue, and we will have plenty of pre-existing deals to negotiate: if Whitehall isn’t working on recruiting some trade negotiators right now, it should be. (If countries are willing to replicate our current EU trade deals on a ‘like for like’ basis, that is a fantastic deal we should seize with both hands. Don’t hold your breath, though.) We should be thinking hard about who to prioritise: but again, we will need a hefty dose of realism. We have less than a fifth of the EU’s GDP: of course we can in time strike deals, but we have less clout and will need to concede more than a market of 500 million.

Looking forward

I believe we have made an awful mistake, which will damage both Britain and the whole of Europe and which historians will judge harshly; I cannot pretend otherwise. But the people are politically (even if not legally) sovereign, and their choice must be implemented in the least painful way possible.

If we want to contain the fallout, we will need to ditch sentiment very quickly indeed. We will need to prioritise, recognise the Leave campaign’s fantasies cannot be delivered and choose which of their promises we will break, because some will have to be broken. But if we can secure single market membership, rebuild our tattered relations with EU allies and other EEA members, preserve co-operation in some key areas, protect the position of Northern Ireland, invest serious effort in our foreign policy towards the EU, preserve some voice in our continent’s counsels through the other organisations we’ve joined and do what we can to build links elsewhere, then we can contain the damage.

It is a very tall order. I have little confidence that the next UK Government will achieve all or even most of it. But we have to try.

1Added 14 August 2016: In order to join the EEA, the UK would also need to be a member of the European Free Trade Association, which also includes Switzerland. We therefore also require its consent on the way to the EEA.

Brexit, borders, smoke and mirrors

It’s a truism, but very probably correct: if voters prioritise jobs, growth and the economy, Remain will win the EU referendum; if they put immigration and borders first, Leave will triumph.

Remain has by far the stronger economic case: the likely effects on economic growth, the public finances and trading relationships are very clear, and Leave hasn’t really even tried to explain them away. Inevitably, they’re starting to major on migration; and depressingly but unsurprisingly, many leading Leavers are doing so in a profoundly unpleasant fashion.

The evidence on migration’s impact is mixed. Economically, most agree it makes for more growth. Immigrants create demand and thus jobs as well as filling vacancies. Most people’s wages seem very marginally affected, if at all. That said, those at the bottom of the income distribution may lose slightly – although the impact is dwarfed by the economic self-harm Brexit represents, or for that matter the Conservatives’ cuts to welfare, any ‘marginal’ loss will undoubtedly affect them far more than their fellow citizens. Undoubtedly, public services have come under real pressure in areas where migration has been most rapid (though immigrants also play a large role in staffing many of those services).

So it’s completely fair to raise immigration as an issue for wages, public services and indeed a source of anxiety about the pace of change. But it’s not OK to peddle promises you can’t or won’t keep in order to score a point: and Leave has been doing exactly that.

Single market membership means free movement

There is one country in the European Economic Area which has membership of the single market without being required to accept free movement (at least for now): Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein has a population of around 37,000 and a very high proportion of people born abroad. Every other country with single market membership has to accept free movement as part of the deal.

The UK is a relatively large European country. Its net migration rate isn’t exceptionally high by the standards of western Europe. And immigrants contribute more to its public purse than they take out. There is no good reason for it to argue that it and Liechtenstein are the only two countries in the EEA who merit special exemption from free movement, and no reason to believe the rest of the EU will see fit to grant it one anyway.

Global free trade? Get in the queue

As a result, the Leave campaign has talked itself into an economic corner, tacitly arguing for leaving the single market outright. The vast majority of economists are clear this would be immensely damaging for the economy, and thus for British jobs and wages. It would hurt the real incomes of the poorest far more than immigration from EU member states ever could.

At the very least, you might expect Leavers to have some semblance of an economic alternative for the UK once it leaves the single market covering 44% of its trade and the trade deals covering more again. So far, the strategy seems to be ‘strike a free trade deal with the EU and a whole host of other countries and then be a hyper-liberal, hyper-open economy afterwards.’

This relies on other states, many either profoundly alienated or utterly bemused by Britain’s presumed decision to walk out on its neighbours, moving the UK to the front of the queue for special trade deals – a willingness which the US, WTO and others have made clear does not exist. Brexiteers often seem to think it also involves torching EU-protected workers’ rights: centre-left Leavers should think hard before lending their names to it.

Open economies have porous borders

How does all this relate to the immigration debate? Let’s look at the 2015 estimated net migration rates per 1,000 of population for the main developed economies (microstates aside) outside the EEA and Switzerland, by comparison with the UK.

UN Population Department CIA World Factbook
Singapore 14.90 14.05
Canada 6.71 5.66
Australia 8.87 5.65
Hong Kong 4.20 1.68
United States 3.17 3.86
United Kingdom 2.83 2.54
Israel 2.24 0.50
South Korea 1.27 0.00
Japan 0.55 0.00
New Zealand 0.33 2.21
Taiwan —– 0.89

Note that the free-market entrepôts (Singapore, Hong Kong) have pretty high migration levels. That’s unsurprising: they’re open to cash from abroad, trade with abroad, investment from abroad – and thus, generally, people from abroad. Multinational companies want to bring people in; relatively open labour markets attract people looking for work, and employers can find it hard to fill gaps; aggressively anti-immigration policy/rhetoric may deter investment. The US, Canada and Australia have notably higher immigration levels than ours (New Zealand’s rate has fluctuated over the years). The exceptions are the East Asian countries, and they all face severe demographic crunches. Japan, in particular, has had sluggish growth for decades and has been trying to tackle its labour market problems without more immigration – without much success.

So is Leave’s plan for Britain to assert itself as a detached, trading nation, dealing with the whole world as openly as possible and pursuing a free trade strategy with the wider world? If so, it’s singing siren songs of pulling the drawbridge up, while its economic ‘strategy’ implies throwing it down. The tenor of its campaign is ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’; the logic of its economics is ‘Ride the world at breakneck speed.’

Perhaps immigration levels would be a bit lower outside the single market; perhaps a somewhat lower share of immigrants would be unskilled workers. But Brexit wouldn’t change the fundamentals: we would still have substantial net immigration, and the ‘tens of thousands’ target would remain a chimera. (People who say Brexit would allow more liberal Commonwealth migration know this perfectly well: net migration from outside the EU is 188,000.) Being ejected from the single market we helped create, helping set off a race to the bottom on workers’ rights, losing security co-operation, undermining a leading actor on climate change and losing influence in the world is a very high price to pay for some tweaks at the margin.

Brexit and the excluded middle

The Leave campaign has spent plenty of time, at least until recently, assuring us we can have the best of all worlds. If you believe them, Britain’s clout will be enough to secure single market access, an end of free movement, no need to accept EU rules and more besides. We will, apparently, be free from all Europe’s supposed downsides and keep all its benefits.

This is pure fantasy, for reasons ably outlined elsewhere. The rest of the EU won’t offer a deal where the UK gets full market access, including services, without taking on EU rules and accepting freedom of movement. The UK may be larger than Norway, and a major partner for the rest of the EU, but they account for 44% of our trade and we account for 8% of theirs: it’s quite clear who needs whom more. Anyway, we’re not going to be allowed to be a member of the single market with no obligation to implement EU rules as a matter of principle. A 64-million strong loophole in the rules of the single market will, reasonably, be seen as flagrant social dumping, and if the purpose isn’t to allow the UK to have lower social and regulatory standards than the EU, then why would we be trying to opt out in the first place? Above all, it would set a baleful precedent for future exits: if Britain could leave, keep everything it liked about the EU and drop everything it didn’t, why couldn’t anyone else? And how long would the EU itself last in such circumstances? The whole project is built on compromise and tradeoffs: Europe can’t afford to unpick the whole bargain thread by thread. So if we leave, the question will be how many trade-offs we choose to make to keep some of what we have now as an EU member.

But it’s worse than that: the very terms of the referendum debate could make even a least-worst Brexit deal impossible. Vote Leave and Leave.EU are currently fighting campaigns where immigration and (narrowly defined) sovereignty take centre stage. How could a post-Brexit Britain, having rejected the very principle of common rules it played a major part in making, then accept common rules on which it didn’t even get a vote? How, having voted against free movement, could it then accept its continuation in return for less influence in Europe and more imperfect access to its markets than before? How on earth could the Leave side defend such an outcome, and how on earth could Britain see it as an acceptable relationship with the EU after Brexit?

The answer, surely, is that it couldn’t. The victorious Brexiteers couldn’t be seen to accept such terms: their own side would tear them apart, and they wouldn’t want to anyway. Many of them have dedicated their lives to tearing down supranational cooperation: why would they readopt it immediately after their greatest victory? People in Vote Leave don’t really think they would: why else are they happy to cite the Canadian free trade agreement (which doesn’t include services) as a favourable model?

Brexiteers’ claims and their stated aims lead inexorably to outright rejection of the single market and a loss of full access. In time, that means a return of barrier after barrier to half our trade, or a slew of standards set by others which we’ll have to meet (again, for less access than we’d have in the EU or EEA), or a bit of both. There’s a destructive dynamic to this campaign on the Leavers’ side: their ideological hostility to the European institutions forces them into ever more uncompromising degrees of separation. The consequence is that abstract sovereignty takes precedence over concrete jobs; marginally reduced immigration trumps the end of single market access.

If you’re voting Leave to secure some middle ground, don’t: not only the preservation of the EU but also the logic of the Brexiteers’ own arguments make it a mirage. Rightly or wrongly, Britain already has a middle ground – outside the euro and Schengen, granted an opt-in on justice and home affairs, but still a major player in the European institutions. We secured that status because we had a seat at the table and a vote on the rules. If we walk away from the table and throw our vote away, don’t expect us to pull it off a second time.

Physician, heal thyself: Britain, democracy and the EU

The European Union is always slated as undemocratic (or anti-democratic). And its democratic credentials aren’t perfect: far from it. But the vast majority of EU legislation is passed by a directly elected Parliament and a Council representing 28 EU governments; the Commission President in 2014 was chosen on the back of the Parliament’s election results; and every Member State can appoint its own Commissioner. Further, if we have a problem with how democratic our relationship with the EU is or isn’t, shouldn’t we think about what we can do about it, rather than just moaning about Brussels?

You might think that improvements would all require Treaty change or unanimous consent from governments. But precisely because the EU actually isn’t an ultra-centralist state, there is actually quite a lot the UK could do on its own to make its MEPs and its government more accountable in Brussels.

European Parliament

The UK has 72 MEPs in the European Parliament: more than any other country except Germany and France. The British media loves to portray the Parliament as toothless and useless, but it actually has power and uses it. In 1999, it forced the resignation of the whole European Commission; in 2004-05, it radically watered down the Services Directive; in 2010, it rejected the SWIFT accord with the US until data protection changes were made. In 2014, it succeeded in ensuring that the leading candidate put forward in the European elections for Commission President got the job.

So the Parliament isn’t just a cypher. It’s not perfect: leaving the famous ‘single seat‘ issue aside, it’s hard to argue that most voters pick their MEPs on European issues. We don’t have a ‘European electorate’ voting on the issues the Parliament can affect, which inevitably affects its legitimacy. It’s probably also true that, especially with longer-serving MEPs, many tend towards a much more integrationist or federalist position than their voters at home (and, indeed, that of their national parties). The UK’s position in the European Parliament also suffers from the behaviour of many of its political parties.

The UK and its parties could and should do more, though, to both fix this and to re-engage with the Parliament. First, its political parties need to do more with the seats they’ve got in Brussels. In particular, one of David Cameron’s most stupid mistakes was to take his MEPs out of the main centre-right grouping in the Parliament (the EPP-ED at the time) and create a smaller, more right-wing and less influential group instead. Cameron said this needed to be done because the EPP was far more federalist than the British Conservatives, which indeed it is, but the Tories could already take a separate line on those issues, and the Parliament doesn’t get to decide on what powers the EU should have anyway. The result is that the UK has no direct influence on what the single largest bloc of MEPs does.

The fact that the UK now uses PR to elect its MEPs is a good thing and means that most voters have an MEP from a party they voted for. We have, however, managed to choose one of the worst possible forms of PR, meaning voters have no way to choose a particular candidate – so there’s no reward for constituency work, or raising issues voters care about in Brussels. If we don’t want to move towards the single transferable vote, we could at least have an open list system, so people can choose particular MEPs.

Finally, if we’re worried about MEPs ‘going native’, we might ask whether it’s really a good thing to have MEPs who can potentially spend 20 years in post (especially under a list system). I normally oppose term limits: re-election (or not) helps accountability. But if we’re worried about the gap between MEPs and their voters, and we know the public don’t tend to vote on European issues, then we might think about whether making sure they don’t spend too long in the Parliament might keep them more in touch with their constituents. I think this could be done within EU law – and even if we don’t want to put it in statute, political parties could try it out themselves, perhaps banning any candidate who has served in the last two terms from being selected again.

Council of Ministers

The Council is made up of ministers from each EU government. Like everyone else, the UK’s government is represented in all decisions which include the UK. Legislative sessions are held in public, though of course they very rarely hit the headlines. Of course, plenty of negotiating isn’t done in public – but that’s the nature of any deal-making anywhere, from the UN to the Good Friday Agreement.

Britain usually gets a compromise it’ll vote for – the share has fallen a bit in recent years, due partly to the relative lack of interest the UK Government has shown in building alliances since 2010, but the UK is still on the ‘winning side’ the vast majority of the time. In fact, governments agree unanimously most of the time – and the more a government cares, the less willing others are to override it. It’s true that in order to get what you want in the EU, you need friends and allies: it’s also true that Cameron’s Government has been notably inept on this front until very recently.

The most obvious solution is for the Government to re-engage, and to do it properly – not just in a crisis. The EU renegotiation shows that Cameron can do shuttle diplomacy: but it’s not good enough to do it at the last minute for one short-term objective. Blair’s government played its hand far better – promoting enlargement, generally taking much greater care to cultivate new EU members, working closely with France on security and defence and building stronger relations with Germany too. You might even argue it was too successful: by 2004-05, the French public and commentariat were fretting about l’Europe libérale or l’Europe anglo-saxone, with dramatic consequences.

If British governments need to play the game better, so do British parliamentarians. The House of Lords’ European Scrutiny Committee gets lots of credit for providing learned reports – but in terms of actual power, our MPs exercise relatively little control over their ministers’ actions in Brussels. That isn’t the EU’s fault: DenmarkFinland and others have EU Committees which can mandate their representatives, setting out negotiating remits and key priorities and involving Parliament in the decisions. We can debate how far to take it, but why can’t we do something similar? We have statements after meetings of the European Council: why can’t we have a ‘State of the EU’ debate every year, where the Government sets out its priorities at EU level – not permanently obsessing about where powers lie, but talking about what to do with them? If Eurosceptics feel power is moving away from Westminster, they need to make it better at watching what’s done in its name.

European Commission

The Commission, home of the famous ‘unelected bureaucrats’, probably takes more flak than any other institution. It’s worth just pointing out that governments nominate a Commissioner each: Jonathan Hill, the Commissioner with responsibility for financial services, was ours this time round. Further, the European Parliament actually managed a major coup in 2014, linking the choice of Commission President to the election results to the Parliament. The British parties failed to engage with the whole process, but Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment is more closely linked to (and, in fact, dependent on) an election result than any previous one.

Given that the President of the Commission is a major role, and since direct election clearly isn’t on the cards, British parties should engage more with the process of choosing Commission candidates. Last time, the Conservatives’ self-imposed isolation meant they had no role at all in the choice of a candidate; Labour scrabbled to try and find any alternative to Martin Schulz, without success. (Taking the process more seriously is important for all EU governments and national parties, not just the British: apart from anything else, more engagement might produce less uninspiring candidates.)

In the meantime, why can’t we do more to open up our choice of Commissioner to scrutiny? Could British MPs hold public hearings for candidates for the UK post? Could the House of Commons nominate or elect the British candidate? Again, the UK Government acts in this area with very little input from parliamentarians: and again, the issue is less to do with Brussels and more to do with MPs keeping their own ministers on a tighter leash.

Court of Justice

Finally, the European Court of Justice is often attacked by anti-Europeans. First, the principle: EU law needs a final court to arbitrate on its meaning. It is fundamental to the single market that, once we agree on rules, they apply throughout that market. Most cases aren’t referred to the ECJ, but EU-wide interpretation of the rules must be available if we don’t want the single market to become ever more nominal as different countries read the rules differently (and as one of the more conscientious rule-followers in the EU, we don’t). You can argue about its decisions, as with any court: but the principle remains.

The much-attacked primacy of EU law is part of the same principle. If you want rules to operate throughout the EU, they can’t be overruled by all conflicting national legislation: that way lies a self-destructing single market. In the UK, the primacy of EU law operates through the European Communities Act 1972, so the principle of parliamentary sovereignty remains intact: the courts disapply UK legislation where it conflicts with EU law, but by virtue of UK statute. Further, the primacy of EU law doesn’t mean the EU can legislate in all areas: it applies to EU law, which must be passed in areas where the EU actually has competence.

Ultimately, the role of the ECJ needs to be better understood. But if we want to talk about a more robust dialogue between UK courts and the ECJ, that may well be possible, perhaps through UK courts including a provisional opinion on cases referred to the ECJ more frequently, in addition to giving reasons for the reference. In a different (though often conflated) area, we’re already seeing a more robust dialogue between the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. On further appeal, the Strasbourg court has often revised its view in line with our domestic courts.

Physician, heal thyself

The EU is and probably always will be, as long as it lasts, a mix of the supranational and the intergovernmental: directly-elected MEPs, EU courts and the Commission will rub along against governments in the Council of Ministers and the European Council. That means we have to consider democracy in two ways: yes, we need to question how democratic the EU institutions themselves are in themselves, but we also need to do much more to hold our own Government to account for what it does in our name.

There are, in fact, plenty of things we can do in the UK to make our relationship with the EU more democratic. The EU’s opponents cannot have it both ways: they talk about closed rooms and secret negotiations, but deals between sovereign governments always involve negotiation. It’s because the EU isn’t a superstate that we get this: intergovernmentalism requires wheeling, dealing and fudge. And if that’s your problem, you can look at the more ‘federal’ bits of the EU as an alternative, or you can do more to keep tabs on what your own government is doing in negotiations, or you can do a bit of both.

What you can’t do is just rail against the whole thing, with no alternative but disengagement. Any relationship with any other country will pose problems of transparency to a greater or lesser extent. It’s not just the EU: what about NATO, or the G8, or the WTO? In many ways, in or out of the EU, sovereignty is the right to a seat at the table: shouldn’t we be asking our Government more about what it does when it sits in the chair?

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.

Free votes: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Whip

Free votes are funny things, and much overrated. We always have them for changing parliamentary procedure. We normally have them on things like abortion, equal marriage and euthanasia: essentially, ‘God issues’. Sometimes, we have them for no very obvious reason: fox-hunting was a case in point. And occasionally, we have them to make a point: Ted Heath held one on the ‘in principle’ vote for entering the EEC in 1972, largely to encourage Labour to split as badly as possible on the same issue.

It’s easy to see why they appeal. We complain about spineless lobby fodder, MPs with no independence of thought, rigid party dogma and so on. Allowing a freewheeling debate, with MPs able to vote their conscience, sounds great (though actually, plenty of MPs rebel). You even hear people saying we shouldn’t have whips at all.

But there’s a reason why in practice, MPs usually get free votes when either the party doesn’t care too much, the outcome isn’t in doubt, religion comes into play or party management means leaders think they have no choice. Equal marriage is important to me personally, for instance, but the whole of government policy on tax, benefits and inheritance wouldn’t have fallen apart if it hadn’t gone through. Not everything can be separated out so neatly.

Take the free vote principle too far, and eventually governments can’t govern coherently at all. If the Budget is completely rewritten by a series of splits, you’re not going to get a massively improved document with better policy for all: you’ll probably get a complete mishmash with everyone running round to try and square all the contradictions after Parliament has voted.

If you run a foreign policy on a ‘voting at will’ basis, you’ll also get an incoherent mess. The Government’s decision to allow Cabinet ministers to campaign against each other in the EU referendum and Labour’s free vote on Syria both illustrate the point. EU membership and decisions on military action are fundamental to UK policy. You can’t just say ‘Well, we’re neutral on leaving the EU, but basically our foreign, security and economic policies are the same either way’ or ‘Well, we don’t have a line on military action in Syria, but basically our policy on the Middle East is the same either way’. These decisions are game-changers: if you don’t have a position on them, you don’t have much of a position full stop.

Too many free votes don’t just make governing harder: they blur government accountability. Most people don’t think they vote for their individual MP: they think they vote for their preferred government, or their preferred party, or to send a message of some kind. The link between how we vote in an election and what policies we get depends, ultimately, on ensuring that MPs from a given party usually vote the same way. I don’t want a completely unwhipped Parliament for the same reason I don’t want a House of Commons filled with independents: parties may be unpopular, but they’re also necessary.

This isn’t to say MPs should be partisan lobby-fodder: dissent is important. But you can’t dissent when there’s nothing to dissent from. Most of the time, governments have to set out their stall and make sure their MPs are happy enough with the collective line that they can get it through Parliament. Rebellions serve a purpose, but so do concerns expressed on the floor of the House or in Committee: they allow for an interplay between a government and its MPs.

And if enough of your MPs won’t toe your preferred line, then you usually need to change it. When Labour MPs made it clear to Jeremy Corbyn that they wouldn’t be led down anything other than a pro-European path, that was the principle of parliamentary democracy at work. To his credit, he gave way, and Labour will now campaign to stay in the EU. No leader can survive without the acquiescence of the MPs they’re meant to lead. Tony Blair shouldn’t have had a free vote on Iraq: he should have had a policy with which MPs were more comfortable.

So yes, we need MPs who don’t always toe the party line. Sometimes MPs have to rebel. But let’s not confuse valuing dissent with not taking a position at all.

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.”