Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Among all the recriminations over the plight of the European Union and Eurozone at the moment, it’s easy to forget that just over fifty years ago, the continent was at war with itself. It’s testament to the power of the European Union since then that there has been relative harmony on the continent as a whole ever since (bar war in the former Yugoslavia and a nasty dictatorship remaining in Belarus). For this writer, it would be an enormous shame if the UK left the EU, and not just because of the inconvenience that could result when visiting the continent. Despite claims to the contrary, the United Kingdom is tied irrevocably to Europe, both geographically and culturally. The European Union exists whether the likes of UKIP like it or not, and comparisons with prosperous Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada ignore the fact that those countries are far away in other continents and have never been linked to the EU in the way that the UK has.
Furthermore, claims that the UK would be better off outside the EU often site the examples of small, wealthy countries within Europe but not in the EU, such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. Yet, as part of EFTA (along with tiny Liechtenstein), those countries are still, in a sense, linked to the EU, and still have to comply with laws from Brussels when they want to trade with the EU. At the same time, while they also have to pay into the European Social Fund, as non-EU members they have little say on where that money stumped up is spent – a situation that is arguably less democratic than being in the EU and having a say on policy and where funds are spent (no matter how torturous those negotiations might be).
Indeed, comparisons with Norway also forget that the Scandinavian country is extremely oil-rich; in comparison, it’s a moot point how the threat of Scottish separatism could affect the access to oil of a post-Union UK breakup. If the unthinkable happened and Scotland hypothetically did separate, the remaining UK, whatever it would be called (“Kingdoms of England, Wales & Northern Ireland” doesn’t quite flow somehow), might still have access to some oil, but dramatically less than before (though it would probably continue to do trade with a sovereign Scotland). In such a situation, the remaining UK would look isolated if outside the EU – even if an independent Scotland decided not to join the EU and/or Euro currency (which is not an impossibility, given Alex Salmond’s frequent references to joining an “arc of prosperity” that would include Norway and Iceland).
The EU may not be perfect, and there's no doubt that the popular discontent looming throughout the Eurozone has certainly put a strain on the whole idea of a united Europe. The argument that the single currency was always in some senses a flawed project without all EU countries signing up and agreeing to full fiscal union back when the Euro was implemented - which would, of course, consistently have led to questions of national sovereignty - has some merit, though many countries (Austria, Finland, The Netherlands, etc.) within the Eurozone seem to be doing fine at the moment. But that’s a digression to another topic entirely, as is the hypothetical question of where Britain would be if it had elected to join the Euro rather than stay with sterling. The point is, at a time of recession in the West and the looming dominance of China and India, the UK’s best option – whatever its future shape – is still, in my view, to be part of an EU of half a million people rather than alone, especially if Scotland elects to go its own way. Furthermore, it’s easy to forget that while the EU isn’t, admittedly, a country as such, it still remains – just - the biggest economic bloc in the world.