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Britain's 21st century opportunity

Britain's 21st century opportunity

Europe will welcome re-engaged UK

by Conor McCoole in Singapore

Tue 7 Jun 2016

Voters in the 23 June referendum will be presented with two truly depressing alternatives. The first is ‘Brexit’, which no friend or ally of Britain wants to see as it will bring significant economic and political uncertainties in its wake. The second is ‘Bremain’ – with the clear understanding that Britain will simply motor along in the slow lane of Europe, at least until the next exit opportunity arises.

Billions of people around the world are watching this referendum closely. There is a real sense that the outcome will have global economic and strategic consequences that go far beyond Britain and Brussels. It concerns all of us, not least Ireland, which has a very close relationship with the UK.

This is one of those issues where the study of history is most useful. Arguably, the European Union is the greatest multinational political project of all time, certainly of our time. Growing out of the ashes of the second world war, the EU helped keep the peace, promote prosperity and give hope to fellow Europeans trapped behind the Iron Curtain for 50 years.

It is true, as the Brexit campaign asserts, that EU membership involves pooling some sovereignty. However, in return, the EU and its citizens have been richly rewarded with 70 years of peace and prosperity. How to put a value on this?

The last decade has not been good for Europe and we may easily fall into the trap of undervaluing the EU. It is no surprise to see this happening in the Brexit debate. Like a train running on loose tracks, the EU has wobbled precariously during the euro area sovereign debt crisis, and again during the migration crisis.

The Schengen agreement is in turmoil, unemployment is persistently high and voters across the continent are flirting with eurosceptic parties and extremism. Against this backdrop, public enthusiasm for the EU, and confidence in its leaders and institutions, has declined across Europe, not just in the UK.

The EU in 2016 is a complex tapestry of nation states, regions, economies, language groups and religions. It is infinitely more complex than the six-member European Economic Community founded in 1957. Leading the EU is probably the greatest political and diplomatic challenge in the world today. The Franco-German locomotive that has pulled the Union steadily for seven decades needs to be strengthened.

There is a huge opportunity for Britain to shape and lead the EU in the 21st century. Using its considerable soft power and diplomatic skills, Britain can play an influential role clarifying priorities and rebuilding public support for the European project across the continent.

Specifically, Britain could focus on defence, stabilising weak states on the periphery and creating a common energy policy. Working for the common good in Europe will strengthen Britain’s influence. British success in key fields will make the whole continent safer and stronger.

Sadly, an exit now, or indeed at any time, will do the opposite.

Conor McCoole is President of the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. This is No.84 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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