Britain and Europe: The Position of the PDU

The PDU lays out its position on Britain and the EU: there should be a referendum in the UK, but one with proper options and a proper debate.

Britain has never been sure if it faces towards or away from Europe.

Britain has never been sure if it faces towards or away from Europe.

Britain has always had an uncertain relationship with Europe. Medieval wars, religious and aristocratic, gave way in the early-modern era to a period of ‘splendid isolation’ in which the UK sought to benefit from colonial possessions whilst keeping the continent internally divided. The all-consuming effects of international crises in the early-20th Century forced the country into European solidarity, and though rebuffed twice in the 1960s it finally succeeded in entering the EEC. Yet Britain has forever remained on the fringe: a substantial power capable of leading the European project, yet unsure whether its identity lies across the Channel or the Atlantic.

Today, the UK finds itself in a particularly Eurosceptic moment in its historical development. Proponents of national independence and the ‘special relationship’ have seized the agenda, whilst defenders of the European project suddenly seem few and far between. The Project for Democratic Union differs from other pro-EU groups in that we believe the Union requires serious existential reform; European institutions have become too aloof and complex — and in Britain especially, the case for a democratic Europe must be made.

In the first instance, the PDU supports full British membership of and involvement in a European federal democracy. The UK has a huge amount to contribute to and gain from such an arrangement; however, we recognise that Brits are unsure of what this would entail and cautious of any major constitutional alterations. Our commitment is to a federal democracy, and so Britain cannot be coerced into a Union without the consent of its citizens. More than any other EU member-state, the UK needs time to debate and understand its relationship with Europe.

David Cameron has exhibited a galling lack of statesmanship in this regard. Held to ransom by an increasingly militant backbench and the media arbitrarily handed to UKIP, he has committed Britain to an in-out referendum during the next parliament if the Conservatives are re-elected. Whilst this is by no means certain (polls indicate that the UK could well be due for another hung parliament in 2015) the Tories will now claim the democratic high-ground and force Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both traditionally Europhilic, to back the promise.

The PDU is fully committed to democracy both within and beyond member-states, but we believe that the democratic ideal is irreducible to short-term populism. It is both ersatz and deeply cynical to ask British citizens to make an informed choice about their relationship with the EU at its greatest moment of uncertainty. There is no way of telling what Europe will look like in five or even ten years’ time; without concrete options, a referendum is merely an expression of emotions, and Eurosceptics, playing on atavistic nationalism, have the home advantage. Britain has withdrawn to introspection just when it is most needed to take an active role in shaping the future of the continent.

We argue that no meaningful referendum can be held until it is clear what sort of Europe emerges from this crisis. However, if a referendum is to be confirmed for 2017, the PDU would ask for an amendment. Rather than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Europe, we would support a third option: for Britain to assume a confederal relationship with the EU, retaining the common market and accountability to the European Court of Justice but remaining independent in other regards. We believe that this would be far more popular with the British public than a full exit from the EU, and would allow continental Europeans to push ahead with further integration if they so wish. Once the future of the EU has crystallised, the UK can then make further decisions on its entry into a federal democracy.

Britain is entitled to self-determination, but this cannot be allowed to infringe on the self-determination of other states. The current government has been all-too coy on the continental stage. Whilst other European leaders have been proactive in steering the Union through the Eurozone crisis (whether or not their actions have been the right ones), the Tories have played for domestic headlines at the cost of weakening the EU further still. The PDU’s first commitment is to a federal democracy for the collective benefit of the continent, with or without the UK. The personal approval ratings of the British prime minister are not our concern.

Due to the narrow horizons of the British media, the wide range of pro-European opinion in this country has not been fully understood. The European project draws support from both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and most trade unions; both groups recognise the stability and protection offered to them, removing trade barriers and ensuring minimum standards of work. In the medium term, these benefits can be maintained by a confederal relationship, but further ahead Britain risks losing its voice in European debates without an active role in a federation. On the other side of the issue, Eurosceptics seem not to fully understand the extent to which globalised capitalism would ravage the UK if it is cut off from Europe: the vision of a small island standing alone in imperial glory is a woeful myth. As for those whose preference is for Washington over Brussels, the US has made it quite clear that the Britain it wants as an ally is one that is at the heart of the European project.

There is no doubt that the British should determine for themselves their relationship with Europe. But this decision should be a measured, rational one, not one clouded by the shrill emotivism of demagogues like Nigel Farage. Come 2017, it will be the job of Europhiles to appeal to the minds, rather than just the hearts, of the British public.

Image ‘Flags over the frontier, Winston Churchill Avenue, Gibraltar’ courtesy to Paul via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0.

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