One of the gripes Britons have about the European Union is that they think the big decisions are stitched up between the Germans and French. Anti-Europeans are fanning this feeling in the runup to the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the EU, saying that Britain has little influence on what happens in Brussels.
Given that Europe’s leaders want Britain to stay in the EU, they should counter this narrative. Part of the response should be to agree to most of what David Cameron, the UK prime minister, is demanding from his renegotiation of the country’s relationship with the EU. The protections to stop Britain being marginalised if the euro zone countries merge into a tighter economic bloc are particularly important.
But the leaders can do more. Once the renegotiation is complete, European leaders could launch a charm offensive to persuade the British people that they are valued and influential. If Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Francois Hollande, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and others were prepared to praise the Brits and admit some of their own mistakes – which, admittedly, won’t be easy given the temptation to pander to their domestic electorates – they could say something like this.
“You may think that Britain has little say in our councils. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Britain has, for example, continually pushed us to open up our economies and make them more competitive. Margaret Thatcher played a big role in the creation of the single market. Leon Brittan, one of your commissioners, helped develop a competition policy that roots out subsidies and reins in monopolists. British governments have also successfully pressed us to reform our market-distorting agricultural policies, so much so that wine lakes and butter mountains are things of the past.
More recently, David Cameron has been a prime mover behind the planned free trade deal with America. Without him, we wouldn’t have got the first ever real-terms cut in the EU budget either.
Of course, we have not always listened to Britain. We didn’t heed your warnings when we created the euro. Nor did we pay attention when you complained about the excessive cost of EU regulations, some of which are frankly unnecessary.
But we are all ears now. We realise Europe needs to cut red tape. We also know we need to do more to complete the single market in areas like the internet, energy, financial markets and other services.
It’s not just in economics that you’ve been influential. Thatcher had the vision to bring eastern European countries into the EU after the iron curtain fell.
Some of you may be having buyers’ remorse now that so many eastern Europeans have come to Britain to work. But never forget that 11 countries are now firmly part of the free world. That’s good for the security of all of us. We only have to look over the border to Ukraine to see how much mischief Russia can still cause to former parts of its empire that are not in the EU.
In future, we will need to pay more attention to foreign and security policy. If that wasn’t clear already, the tragic events in Paris have rammed this home. We live in a dangerous neighbourhood and can’t rely on America to protect us.
Britain will have a big role to play in this. Along with France, it has the EU’s strongest armed forces. You have a veto at the United Nations Security Council. You have huge expertise in diplomacy and intelligence gathering.
Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, is run by a Brit, Rob Wainwright. The former intelligence officer is also an increasingly important figure in the fight against Islamic State. A new European counter-terrorism centre is being created as part of Europol next year.
Looking further to the future, your influence will grow if you vote to stay in the European Union at the forthcoming referendum. Britain is forecast to have the largest population of any EU country in a generation – and may have the largest economy too.
On the other hand, if you left the EU, we can’t say exactly what would happen. You’d first have to tell us what sort of relationship you wanted. Would you want to stay in the single market? Would you want to cooperate with us on foreign policy and fighting terrorism?
If you didn’t, we’d all be poorer and more vulnerable. If you did, we’d try to cobble something together, but we would struggle to take account of your views.
We would go on designing rules for the single market, working out how to deal with Russia and figuring out how to fight terrorism. But without you at the table, we might come to worse decisions. You might still be able to tag along but it would be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Could this really be in the interest of a country with such a proud history? Surely, it would be better to stay in the EU and work with us to make Europe safer and more prosperous.”
Hugo Dixon is actively involved in campaigning to keep Britain in the European Union.