By Richard Laming
I would like to thank the organisers of today’s debate for their invitation to come and speak. If I may say so, “Britain in Europe: leading or leaving?” is a clever title, but it doesn’t actually reflect the reality of either today’s Britain or today’s Europe. Leaving the EU is pretty much out the question, on the one hand, and even the most committed pro-Europeans wouldn’t say that Britain is leading it, on the other. The truth lies somewhere in between.
After all, recent general elections have seen repeated unsuccessful attempts to make Britain’s membership of the EU the most important issue. Sir James Goldsmith tried this back in 1997 with his Referendum Party; William Hague’s Conservatives tried some rather similar rhetoric in 2001, and then there was Robert Kilroy-Silk’s ignominious failure last year. He couldn’t even get 6 per cent of the vote in his best constituency. The British people aren’t being persuaded to leave the European Union. The stories and the speeches may be funny, but the political case doesn’t work.
The British people may not love the European Union, but they are putting up with it. It’s a pity the attitude sometimes seems so grudging, because actually when you take a more positive approach to the EU it all works so much better.
My friend and colleague Chris Forster will talk in a moment about some of the practical issues and how we can go about taking a more positive attitude.
I am going to keep myself to the bigger picture, the question of why we need the EU in the future, and but actually I’ll start by saying a few things about why the EU started. If you understand that, you understand a lot.
I will start with the Schuman declaration of 1950, which declared that: “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”
Note the date, 1950. This was only five years after the end of the worst war in human history, a war that ravaged almost the entire continent. You can see why it mattered. War was not a distant memory but a vivid, recent one. The important point is the call for a creative effort.
Now, in the case of the Schuman declaration, it led to the creation of the first European institutions which enabled the member states and their citizens to find common solutions to their common problems. The notion of institutions was important. The success and the stability of Europe rest not on a transient understanding between whichever political leaders happen to be in office at any given time but on real and lasting bonds of understanding and obligation between their citizens.
These institutions, with their sharing of sovereignty and the concomitant rule of law, have made a real difference to Europe. Nothing like them has ever existed before. They are the reason why the last fifty years of European history have been so much happier than the previous fifty years.
But the pro-European case is not about history. It is about the future. We can’t keep harking back to the war and the need to prevent its recurrence. We need to address the new challenges that face us. What are they? Let me give you two examples.
First, there is the threat of pandemic diseases, such as the possible spread of bird flu. It may be that that particular threat turns out to be exaggerated, but nobody can be sure of that right now. Planning should assume that things might get bad. And if things do get bad, what should we do?
It is clear that the virus will cross national borders without stopping to show a passport. The incidence of the virus in other countries could very quickly, before we know it, become an outbreak in our own. For this reason we need to cooperate.
Furthermore, there is at present a limited supply of the vaccine, and if the virus mutates into a new and unknown form, supplies might be more limited still. It is essential that some kind of coordinated view can be taken of how to fight any outbreak in the collective interest. No country can expect to fight the disease on its own.
Here’s an important thought: how would we feel if there were an outbreak here and other countries sat on stockpiles of the vaccine that we desperately needed? A determination to defend national sovereignty above all else risks being very dangerous indeed.
And even if there is no serious outbreak, as we all sincerely hope, there is the economic damage that can be done by a panicky overreaction to reports of an outbreak. Restrictions on the transport of animals or people could very quickly become extremely costly. For example, estimates of the cost of the recent SARS outbreak in 2003 range from US$10 billion to US$30 billion.
Common and collective action through democratic institutions bound by the rule of law will reduce the threat and make effective responses much easier. This is not the time to stick two fingers up at our closest neighbours.
The second example I will give is energy policy.
Think back to the gas crisis that befell Europe at the start of the year. It’s not over. British Gas has announced its prices are now going up by some 25 per cent.
The crisis may have been provoked by the Russian government, but even if we don’t buy much gas from Russia directly ourselves, the countries we do buy it from are in competition with Russia for sales. So a hike in Russian prices or a restriction in Russian supply affects us just the same.
At present, the different EU member states are all pursuing different, separate and rival policies towards Russian gas. Germany, for example, is planning to build a gas pipeline directly from Russia under the Baltic Sea. It would be much better to build one through Poland. This should be an EU project, not a national one.
Acting together, we would have much more negotiating power with the Russians and be able to get cheaper prices. Tesco and Sainsbury’s are cheaper than the local corner store because they can buy from suppliers in bigger quantities. The EU could have the same advantage, if it wished.
Or think about nuclear power. It offers the possibility of energy with low emissions of carbon dioxide, but there are worries about safety. It’s a question that we’ve got to face in the next few years.
But what is the point of the UK deciding that nuclear power is too dangerous, only to watch nuclear power stations being built on the channel coast of France? If we live in a world where nuclear power is an option, as we do, that option can only sensibly be discussed at a European level.
A policy or an attitude that we will do what’s best for us, regardless of its consequences for anyone else, is going to make matters worse and not better. Leaving the EU is no solution to these problems.
Lastly, I must acknowledge that we have heard some criticisms of the EU already and no doubt we will hear more. Many of them I share myself. The secrecy, the lack of accountability.
But the pro-European cause has never been one of apology for the failures of the EU institutions or its decision-making system. It is an argument for improving those institutions, for getting better decisions. Pro-European campaigners have led the demands for open meetings in the Council of Ministers, or for an extension in the principle of election as opposed to the principle of appointment for the key EU officials.
But pro-Europeans understand that we will only get better decisions, more openness and more accountability if we work with our closest friends and nearest neighbours to achieve them. Europe cannot be reshaped by one country alone. We shouldn’t be leaving but engaging.
In conclusion, let me say that pro-Europeans are careful to remember the past but refuse to be held prisoner by it. Instead, we making realistic and hopeful plans for the future. We can do this because we are willing to make that creative effort proportionate to the times in which we live. I hope that everyone here this evening will join us.
Based on a speech given by Richard Laming at King’s College, London, on 8 February 2006. He may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.