By David Seymour and Peter Wilding
From time to time, a grand plan is proposed as an alternative to the UK’s membership of the European Union. In the late 1990s it was that this country should morph into a warrior 51st state of America, a suggestion which died in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today in The Times, David Owen comes up with what is described as his “vision for Europe”. In short, the former SDP leader triangulates the in/out binary question which passes as informed European debate in the UK andintroduces a third way solution. When a referendum comes, the British people should be invited to split Europe into the single market (a good thing) and the single currency (a bad thing) and vote yes or no to both. The happy outcome is that the wise Brits will vote for the status quo, namely yes to the single market and no to the single currency, the phobes will be dished and the membership question laid to rest for a generation.
So far, so cunning.
Owen’s idea follows a slow trickle of pro-referendum noises of late from Mandelson downwards. It is a logical consequence, not of banker-turned-politician Nigel Farage’s levee en masse, but of the December summit. As Nucleus said at the time, the Cameron ‘veto’ created a new political paradigm: it politicised the single market by highlighting two opposing visions: expanding Europe as the supranational single market versus deepening Europe as an intergovernmental single currency. Luckily for the PM, the first vision was Merkel’s, the second ended up as Sarkozy’s last bid to trump the Anglo-Saxons.
As she repeated today in Berlin, Merkel is thus the PM’s firm ally on keeping a Thatcherite free trading single market governed from Brussels. For the British, Owen says that this is an “arrangement long favoured by the UK but also an acceptable compromise to many other member states. It keeps to the present union of self-governing states with a separation of powers between the supranational — those passed from the nation state to a European body — and the intergovernmental — those remaining within the nation state.”
But this situation, the status quo post-Lisbon, is unravelling not only because the crisis demands fiscal union but that Merkel is demanding political union. This is not the kind of quarrel Cameron wants to have with his closest ally. But it is exactly the kind of quarrel the Tory right wants to have with him. The problem is that it is Merkel’s mission and the logical conclusion of the crisis. Owen says:
“…a fiscal union within the eurozone, is more and more explicitly championed as the desirable long-term development by Germany, the EU’s most powerful state. This model offers a legislature in which the European Parliament would embody the lower chamber and the EU Council of Ministers the upper. The President of the European Commission and the President of the Council would be elected. The Commission would be an executive and virtually a European government, with federal authority for trade, economic, industrial, social, justice, environmental, agricultural, fishing, foreign and defence policies. The European Central Bank would replace the need for national banks, though they might remain as symbols. Under a fiscal union the explicit expectation would be that all EU member states would eventually join the eurozone.”
Owen is painting a picture of the type of Europe which may emerge through the fog of the currency crisis. It is that Europe which the British will have to ponder but which, so far, has not been aired in the debate. The question is what price is the single market for the British, because Owen shares Mandelson’s conviction that, no matter what, a federal core is inevitable. Though nothing is sure in the troubled EU, the superstate will come some day and it will be Germany’s legacy:
“Some of the countries, particularly Germany, want further economic integration beyond the fiscal compact agreed in December 2011. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, made it clear to her party, the Christian Democratic Union, this year that she saw Europe as a “community of destiny” and she will ask for a mandate to achieve that from German voters in the autumn election of 2013. The present opposition party, the Social Democratic Party, shares much of her vision.”
However, Berlin’s political game reflects the all-or-nothing approach it brings to the Eurozone crisis and lays the seeds for delay and disharmony. As Owen says, the extra leap from fiscal to political union is a huge one and risks alienating states considering joining the Eurozone:
“This will probably be acceptable for most, but not all of the existing eurozone countries and potentially for others who intend to become members of the eurozone.”
So, the end result is a core political union by the end of the decade with, say, 15 members and an economic community of perhaps 30. As far as Owen is concerned this realignment must trigger a British referendum by 2016:
“At the very least UKIP will be the lever for forcing a Conservative government to concede a referendum on Europe. Labour will be forced to concede as well. But a referendum will be lost in the UK if the only option is ever greater integration within the EU. It will be won only if the present Europe is restructured and the choices in a referendum are more attractive.”
Lord Owen was the only one of the Gang of Four who broke away from Labour in 1981 to form the SDP who didn’t do it primarily because of the party’s then hostility to Europe.
Today, Lord Owen asks whether, in a referendum, the British would vote to pull out of the bigger single market because of smaller federal single currency? And if so, how the UK would thrive without the power to oversee its beloved single market
The underlying message will be whether we really want to consign ourselves to the outer darkness of influence, power and economic strength? Is our future really as another Lichtenstein, Iceland or Norway?
It is worth asking.