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Taking fresh guard
28 Feb, 2020

As a backcloth to Britain’s negotiations to join the then EEC and our accession in 1973, the nation was frequently told that it was imperative - as we had become “the sick man of Europe”. So where to now, asks London4Europe Vice-Chair Richard Wassell.

But this only related to the state of our often strike-bound, low productivity economy. Otherwise I would say that the country was then (albeit not for much longer) in good heart, culturally robust and united. Maybe the still vivid memories of WWII helped us to keep our troubles in proportion.

Rather different from now. Even though various of our former partner countries are encountering difficulties, we have sadly differentiated ourselves by the extremity of our response as represented by blaming it all on the EU – leading inexorably to the tragedy of Brexit. So we are once again, although not this time in the physical sense (yet!) in terms of our economic well-being, the sick man of Europe. The only troubled member state (as was) which has embarked on a course virtually programmed to lead to its own isolation and break-up.

Providing a stable government can be brought together in Dublin, reunification of Ireland seems only a matter of time – probably short. And admittedly that may be in the best interests of all parties - not least Britain, both for the sake of our internal coherence as the nation we may yet continue to be and so as to simplify a little our relations with EU.

Scottish independence may, for procedural reasons, take a little longer – but seems no less inevitable. Scots simply reject the shape of society we in the south insist on voting for – so only a change in our governing culture can hope to keep them within the fold. Even though Boris Johnson is showing some commitment to resolving our regional inequalities, this seems only to apply to England – which suggests Scotland has been written off already.

This reminds me of one of only two benefits from Brexit I have been able to find thus far – the freedom to determine our own regional policy. Or to leave it to the market, as doubtless some zealots would prefer.

We have “enjoyed” a relatively quiet month on EU relations since the fatal date of 31 January. This is not going to continue. By the time you read this, we should know how close or otherwise are the mandates given to the lead trade negotiators on either side. Even if there are exceptions such as fishing, generally we know that EU do not need us more than we need them – and the tenour of negotiations will reflect this.

Returning to the likely break-up of our precious union, how in any case is the EU or anyone else to reach long-term trade arrangements – based as they would have to be on reciprocal give and take but also on the most precise calculations – with a country set to lose within a few years a third of its territory and 10% of its population? Provisions would have to be included to allow for this eventuality – something unlikely to be acceptable to the UK government.

So the future is...anyone’s guess.

But where does this vacuum leave us - we committed Europeans who still believe?

Doubtless we all recognise the failings and mistakes of the referendum campaign and of the confused period that followed, leading up to last December’s general election and the extinction (for the present) of our hopes. In particular, our side lacked the charismatic spokespeople needed to attract and sustain public attention – and we handicapped ourselves through the cacophony of too many campaign organisations, at local and national level both, pulling in different or overlapping directions and getting in one another’s way.

This is understood within the European Movement as we move into a new phase of our political lives and of our historic mission. We cannot realistically expect an early return to EU membership – not least because such would presumably be unacceptable to our once and future partners until such time as the present nationalist strand in our politics and national psyche has finally run its course. We must nonetheless be alert to and equipped to take advantage of the change in the political weather which should follow once people begin to understand the fraud that Brexit represents.

In support of this, we must think (and encourage others to think) of relations with Europe in new and different ways. Not least with all member states (and in some cases their provinces) being required to ratify any trade deal with UK, we should cease treating the EU as a monolith and come more familiar with the individual countries and communities it comprises.

The Franco-German Youth Office (Office franco-allemand pour la Jeunesse), established in 1963, has, for instance, played a vital role in cementing relations and understanding between those two pivotal countries – creating a bond which will cascade through the generations, whatever the occasional differences of emphasis as between the two governments. Before such ideas were overtaken by the clamour for Brexit, I remember wondering whether we might foster a similar arrangement with Italy (being the next largest EU economy after D, F and GB). There might, just perhaps, still be scope for structures of this type which would bind us in with our European neighbours long-term and thereby help break down the psychological barrier those 22 miles of English Channel encapsulate.

Richard Wassell
Vice-Chairman, London4Europe

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.