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.

On double standards

As a democrat, I believe in people’s equal rights to live under a government of their choosing. I believe in self-determination, and I believe that a people who have lived on their own islands for nearly 200 years and who almost unanimously want to stay under their current government have every right to remain so. As such, I frankly cannot see what is so complicated about the case of the Falkland Islands.

If the argument is territorial integrity, then I fail to see why Argentina’s share of Tierra del Fuego (non-contiguous, on an island mainly in Chile) is legitimate while the Falklands (300 miles away) are not. Nor do I understand why the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla, Alaska, French Guiana, Kaliningrad and many others besides somehow fit the bill. I don’t accept that 3,000 people living on a previously uninhabited set of islands are somehow a remnant of colonisation to be subjugated or deported. I simply do not concede that Argentina has any argument worthy of the name.

My party leader’s view that the UK should discuss sovereignty over the Falklands with Argentina, despite the clearly expressed wishes of their people, thus strikes me as unconscionable. Never mind whether British voters believe that British citizens in British territory who wish to remain British have every right to remain so, though they do. Never mind whether a leader who refuses to defend his fellow citizens from foreign aggression is unelectable, though he is. His stance is just plain wrong.

The correct position is: “The United Kingdom holds no selfish or strategic interest in the Falkland Islands and is more than happy to discuss matters of day-to-day concern with the Argentine Republic. Its only concern is to uphold the democratic rights of its people. On the day it can be shown that Falklanders’ wishes have changed, the UK Government will do all in its power to fulfil them. Until that day arrives, it will not abandon its fellow citizens. Sovereignty can only be placed on the table by the Falklanders themselves.”

So far, so simple. But many people who support Corbyn on this issue come back with accusations of hypocrisy. They ask: “But what about the Chagos Islands? What about the handover of Hong Kong? Why is realpolitik fine for them?” The argument extends over huge swathes of British foreign policy.

In many cases, the response is that it’s not “fine for them”. The UK’s treatment of the Chagossians was and remains unconscionable, too: we should never have been willing to remove 2,000 people from their islands just so our ally could be assured of not having anyone anywhere near its military base. We should put matters right now, and Corbyn has every right to point out the West’s hypocrisies in the Indian Ocean. But that makes no difference to the rights and wrongs of the Falklands.

In many others, though, the answer is murkier: unlovely pragmatism is often required in foreign policy. Hong Kong was, at least in part, a case in point. The UK had a permanent legal title to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, but not the New Territories. It may well have been that Hong Kongers would have preferred a political arrangement which didn’t involve being part of the largest dictatorship on Earth, but the bottom line was that Hong Kong’s water supplies depended on the New Territories, China had no intention of re-leasing them, the UK would have had no military ability to defend Hong Kong anyway, and no one was going to help us do so.

The only option available was to make the best terms available. You might (validly) question whether the best terms were, in fact, made; you might decry the UK Government’s failure to press China on behalf of Hong Kong since 1997; you absolutely should lay into John Major’s Tories for refusing to offer the Hong Kong Chinese British citizenship. But no UK Government could seriously have been expected to try and defend Hong Kong against the People’s Liberation Army.

Realpolitik is usually ugly, but often necessary. However, there’s no conceivable need to trample on the Falkland Islanders. Argentina’s periodic fits of pique are an irritant, but no more than that. No lease is about to expire; no water supplies depend on Buenos Aires. The UK doesn’t have to put the sovereignty of the Falklands on the table: it would be an act of choice, not compulsion.

One of the most pernicious aspects of much of the hard left’s foreign policy is that it lays into the UK’s cynical or pragmatic compromises (sometimes necessary, sometimes not) not to call for a policy based on consistent defence of human rights or self-determination or the rule of law, but simply a policy based on the assumption that the West is always wrong. And it devalues the very notion of aiming for a genuinely better foreign policy as a result, because it refuses to set consistent yardsticks: we’re wrong whatever we do.

This isn’t just whataboutery to avoid the issue: it’s whataboutery in the name of dismissing virtually every other principle in favour of callow anti-Western, anti-American sloganeering. So Syria ceases to be a question of what can best be done to combat ISIS, or protect civilians, or negotiate a deal – but an opportunity to denounce the sins of Britain, France and America. Ukraine ceases to be about the rights of democracies on the border of an aggressive great power, or how best to allow Ukrainians to live in peace under a government they chose, but a chance to snipe at NATO enlargement. And yes, the Falklands cease to be the home of 3,000 people who have rights like the rest of us and become a chance to complain about British colonialism.

Foreign policy is often murky; double standards are often unavoidable. It is sad indeed that, in the name of a more ethical foreign policy, parts of the left wish to add so many more, with no real need or purpose.

To Jeremy, on Syria

Like most Labour members, I received a request for my views on Syria from Jeremy Corbyn. Below is my response.

Dear Jeremy

Thank you for your email asking for members’ views on military action in Syria.

I do not envy our MPs the choice they face. I think they have a duty to their voters and consciences, not just party members, and I neither expect nor want them to vote solely on the basis of their CLPs’ views. I am not an expert, and I know I may be wrong. I should also say that I strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq: I do not take the prospect of military action lightly.

However, I personally believe that the UK should support the multilateral military effort in Syria as well as Iraq. I would prefer the Parliamentary Labour Party to be whipped to support this, though I recognise that some MPs would feel unable to follow such a whip.

ISIS controls large areas of territory, has committed and continues to commit unspeakable atrocities, has murdered 130 people in Paris, and promises to attempt to kill more people in Britain and elsewhere. When an organisation establishes a form of theocratic totalitarianism over large swathes of territory and the people who live there, wages war on all its neighbours and threatens our and our allies’ citizens, I see a very good moral case to act.

Further, no political settlement can defeat or contain ISIS on its own. ISIS has told us what it wants with glass-like clarity: it wants to create a caliphate on the model of the 600s. For ISIS, accepting a border to the caliphate is literal anathema; permanent peace treaties are literal anathema; failing to wage jihad at least once a year is literal anathema. The Vienna Process does not include them; it never could. At some point, someone will have to force ISIS back by force of arms.

Therefore, to treat diplomatic efforts and military action as incompatible is to present a false choice. An inclusive government in Syria would be better able to tackle ISIS; a weakened ISIS would have less scope to weaken more moderate opposition groups, as it currently does – to the tacit benefit of the Assad regime, reducing the chances of a meaningful political process in Syria.

Of course, air strikes are already being carried out against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. The UK already carries out airstrikes in the latter, at the request of Iraq’s government. I recognise those strikes have produced mixed results so far. Clearly ISIS still exists. But it controls 30% less territory in Iraq than it did, and local forces exist who can advance with air support. The Kurds liberated Sinjar in Iraq; local Sunni forces have also liberated territory. It can be done. We should also ask: how much stronger might ISIS have become without the current air strikes? Presumably opponents believe the current western action in Syria (and Iraq?) should stop: what do they think would happen if it did?

Escalated air strikes will not destroy ISIS on their own, as the Prime Minister has made clear. But reducing ISIS’ capacity to attack others and relieving pressure on the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition are worthwhile objectives. The Government’s estimate of 70,000 moderate forces can never be certain, and depends on the definition of ‘moderate’. But the figure fits much of the most thorough research, and most analysts accept the broader point: there are Sunni, locally-focused forces who might often be conservative Islamists, but oppose ISIS and Assad and are distinct from the al-Nusra Front.

Further, France – one of our nearest neighbours, greatest friends and closest allies – has been attacked and has asked us to join the coalition effort in Syria. The EU’s mutual assistance clause has been invoked, and the Security Council has called on states to take all necessary measures in accordance with international law. France has not invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, no doubt to avoid alienating Moscow: but the wider principle of collective security is undoubtedly engaged. Collective security matters: in Labour, we might call it solidarity. Either way, our alliances form the bedrock of Britain’s security, and we spurn them at our peril.

Of course, I have reservations. This approach relies on a bolstering of moderate forces over time, protected in part by coalition air strikes. Russia takes a very different view of Assad to ours (and is bombing the Syrian opposition); Turkey is an ally, but its views of the Kurds are very different to the rest of NATO. We will need to try and press both to change tack, at least in part. We cannot know how local ground forces or the Vienna Process will fare. Ultimately, a ground force from other Middle Eastern countries might well be required to finish ISIS. But we face uncertainty whatever choice we make. My choice would be for the UK to play its full part in defeating ISIS by political, diplomatic and military means.

Finally, this consultation is no substitute for careful, substantive consideration by MPs of whether or not it is better to intervene in Syria. Given YouGov’s polling of Labour members (which contrasts sharply with its polling of Labour voters) and with Momentum, the successor to your leadership campaign, organising its members to lobby against air strikes at the same time, the majority of respondents will almost certainly oppose military action. But a two-day online consultation, with no way of knowing how representative respondents are and with only two days to comment on an immensely complex topic, is no basis for deciding whether to commit armed forces. I profoundly hope it will not be used in an attempt to intimidate Labour MPs who support the case for acting now.

Best wishes

Douglas Dowell
Leyton and Wanstead CLP

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.”