David Cameron: The Good European

The PM sees the EU as part of the solution, not the problem for the UK economy - a brave position to take as leader of today's Tory party.

Well that’s me told. Back in January, a couple of weeks before David Cameron delivered the speech in which he first promised an in/out referendum on Britain’s European Union membership, I wondered whether the Prime Minister’s “Global Race” story was pro-EU or anti.

It could go either way (which is, I suppose, the purpose of a plastic slogan). The demands of creating slim-line, super competitive, non-bureaucratic, low tax economy might militate against the onerous obligation to run every decision through Brussels. Or, the prospect of a future in which the rules of trade will be dictated by continental Titans – the US, India, China – might make it imperative that the UK amplify its power in the only forum that can match those beasts for market heft, which is the EU. Which way would Cameron jump?

Now we have the answer, and it isn’t going to go down well on the right of the Conservative party. In a speech today on the topic of Britain’s role in the world, Cameron makes it clear that he sees EU membership as a race-winning supplement not an obstacle:

Another key part of that effort is our place at the top table. At the UN. The Commonwealth. NATO. The WTO. The G8. The G20. And yes – the EU. Membership of these organisations is not national vanity – it is in our national interest. The fact is that it is in international institutions that many of the rules of the game are set on trade, tax and regulation. When a country like ours is affected profoundly by those rules, I want us to have a say on them. 

This should be an uncontroversial statement. There is no credible model of Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe that doesn’t require deep integration with the single market – the agreed space for internally consistent trading rules, allowing free cross-border movement of goods and labour. The obvious way to make that arrangement work to the UK’s advantage is to be one of the countries at the negotiating table when new regulations are discussed. Leaving the EU would mean ditching the right to change the rules while, in most cases, still being bound by them. If you want to be all purist about the sovereignty issue, that sounds like being “out” involves a greater surrender of national autonomy than staying “in”.

Cameron will have been prompted to make this intervention by alarmed noises emanating from British exporters. Although business leaders are generally reluctant to get involved in political controversies, the message being passed to Downing Street is that wild speculation about the UK walking away from the EU table is most unwelcome. London’s diplomatic influence in Brussels is already waning with alarming speed.

Of course, the hardline sceptics see this as typical lily-livered Europhilia. The rest of Europe needs the UK’s market and wants to export to us as much as we want to export to them. A mutually beneficial deal, say the sceps, can be done that keeps the benefits of free trade and junks all the pseudo-state apparatus of legal and political integration. Besides, if the future of trade is with China, India and Brazil, why shouldn’t the UK strike out alone, in true buccaneering fashion, no longer “shackled to the corpse” – as some Tory MPs describe it – of a sclerotic, statist, debt-laden, enfeebled Eurozone. (What this argument likes to ignore is the way that Germany manages quite happily to sell six times as many goods to China as the UK while remaining entirely enmeshed in institutional apparatus of the EU. For more on that, and other rebuttals of the anti-EU case, I recommend this article by Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform.)

The reality, of course, is that the anti-EU position begins with visceral, nationalist hatred of the whole project and then retro-fits libertarian ideas to make quitting sound economically feasible. It is to Cameron’s credit that he doesn’t play that game and that, ultimately, he recognises the long-term strategic advantages of active engagement in Brussels. Where it gets a bit awkward is if he follows that logic to ponder which powers he seriously wants to “repatriate” as part of his planned renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

If, as his speech today implies, he wants Britain’s role in Europe to be advancing an agenda to boost competitive reform within the single market – playing “global race” personal trainer to the rest of the continent – he won’t want to spend too much diplomatic capital demanding special UK exemptions from EU law to satisfy his insatiable back benchers. He knows that a British Prime Minister has better things to ask for in Brussels than concessions that Ukippers and Tory militants will in any case jeer as inadequate. By acknowledging today that participation in the EU project is part of the solution not the problem of British competitiveness, Cameron has finally outed himself as a “good European.” Very brave, Prime Minister.

David Cameron attends a press conference at the EU headquarters on May 22, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.