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Britain’s risks are in staying, not leaving

Britain’s risks are in staying, not leaving

Dysfunctional euro demands treaty change

by David Owen in London

Tue 24 May 2016

Back in 1971, the UK government ‘white paper’ on entry to the European Economic Community drawn up under Prime Minister Edward Heath misleadingly promised ‘no erosion of essential sovereignty’. That was untrue then and is much more so today.

European law overrides British law. In his negotiations to try to improve Britain’s conditions, David Cameron, Heath’s successor nearly half a century later, has failed to achieve any treaty amendment to change this. The threadbare ‘concessions’ Cameron has won on access to the single market for UK companies outside the euro are not legally watertight, because they do not and will not form part of a new European treaty.

Cameron has unambiguously shown the futility of attempts to gain significant EU reforms. That’s why I shall be voting No on 23 June. Departing would bring many positive changes. Britain could make its own laws again in its own parliament. The British can rediscover the skills of international diplomacy and rise to the challenge of global markets. This could be the spark we need to re-energise our nation.

I welcomed the vision of a Common Market when in 1962 the UK first broached membership. Nevertheless, Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party, rightly warned of a federal Europe ahead. We now realise that, in the EU, you cannot be partly a country and partly not a country. The euro’s logic demands a full political union. Britain doesn’t want to be part of it. So it’s better if we leave.

Within a monetary system, politics and economics are fundamentally intertwined. Because I saw the pitfalls, I was one of the ministers in James Callaghan’s government in 1977-78 who succeeded in keeping Britain out of the European exchange rate mechanism, the forerunner of monetary union.

Yet necessary euro area integration is on hold – intensifying the EU’s problems. It is puzzling why a country like Germany, which says it wants to complete the euro, doesn’t appear to be prepared for substantive treaty changes in any reasonable timeframe. On a visit to Berlin in January, I found no support from government officials even for the rather half-hearted integration timetable in the EU’s 'five presidents' report last year. Germany seems prepared to wait until 2025 to see further meaningful integration, after an intergovernmental conference and full ratification procedures.

A Europe displaying this lack of drive will run out of time, with possibly disastrous consequences. The euro is in a limbo. And the reason is because European citizens manifestly do not want the full-blown integration that the euro’s further development, indeed survival, requires. This reflects the popular disillusionment seen in every EU member, a product of high unemployment in countries unable to devalue, continued austerity, and structural inertia within an EU that resists change.

I don’t see why the ‘leave’ campaign should outline a detailed blueprint for future plans. Not the ‘leavers’, but rather Cameron, launched the plan for departure, with his referendum project unveiled in January 2013. So the onus is on Cameron, not on those who are opposing him, to provide detail on how continued EU membership can benefit Britain. Likewise it is laughable for Cameron, having opened the referendum route, to pretend that staying in is the only answer because the alternative of departing would lead us to catastrophe.

For British security in its deepest sense – economic, political, military and social – remaining in dysfunctional EU, dragged down by a failing euro, is, I believe, a dangerous option. Remaining in the EU is more risky more than leaving.

Lord Owen is a former UK Foreign Secretary and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This is No.67 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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