My encounter with Nigel Farrage on Radio 4 earlier this week made me think pro Europeans should speak up more often, rather than leave the stage to the sceptics and phobes. I actually quite like Farrage – at least he says what he means and means what he says, in quite an engaging way. But the message that he peddles, supported by a worryingly large number of my Tory coalition colleagues, is against the interests of Britain. To positively revel in the difficulties of the Euro and willing Greece to exit and for the currency to collapse, is reckless. Yesterday’s disappointing UK GDP figures would look rosy if the Euro collapsed and our major trading partners were plunged into monetary chaos.
At least most of what passes for debate about Europe is currently focussed on economics, rather than politics. But those who want Britain to loosen its ties with our fellow Europeans, or cast away the ropes altogether, always complain that Britain was misled into joining a political project, rather than a trading group. The same people complain about “laws from Brussels” that by pass Westminster. They are wrong on both counts.
The European Union has always been a political project. Its founder members in 1957 saw that pooling their sovereignty would preserve peace in Western Europe. Free trade – the unfettered movement of goods, services and people within the Union was the principal means of achieving that political objective. The EU was never just a trade association.
But trade associations and single markets need common rules. And rules in an association of nation states mean laws, even if they originate in Brussels.
There is no doubt in my mind that the European Union is the most successful voluntary multilateral organisation in human history. The primary objective has been achieved. Western Europe has enjoyed 67 years of peace. This is the longest period of peace since the 43 years between the Franco Prussian war in 1871 and the German invasion of Belgium, in the first month of the First World War. Not just my generation but my parents’ generation are the first in modern European history not to have to contemplate conscription into a national army.
Peace has enabled free trade to bring a huge increase in living standards. Western Europe is the most prosperous place on the planet. There’s never been a better time to be a citizen of Bristol, Bordeaux, Hanover or Milan. Over the last 30 years I have witnessed that peace and prosperity being rolled out over most of the rest of the continent. Greece, Spain and Portugal joined once they were free of fascist dictatorships. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe has enabled the European family to come together in a union that no empire or military campaign achieved in the previous three thousand years. The Union now has 27 members, with more wanting to join. I don’t understand why anyone in Britain would want to leave a club that is still admitting new members who are clamouring to join.
Next year Croatia will become the 28th member state of the EU. I will be voting on the treaty of accession later this year. I hope that before the end of this decade the remaining ex Yugoslav states and Turkey will also be admitted to membership. A couple of weeks ago I made a contribution to that process by serving on a delegation to Macedonia, the next state most likely to be admitted.
The visit was organised by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The WFD was founded twenty years ago to help develop political structures and civic society in the former communist states in East Europe. British politicians and civil servants train their equivalents in their home countries and also host training sessions in Britain. My first experience of them was in 1993 when I was elected to Avon County Council. The general secretary of the new Hungarian party Fidesz stayed in my flat during the election, learning the arts of canvassing, leaflet design and getting out the vote on polling day. Fidesz was a member of Liberal International but by the late 1990s had moved far to the right of centre in Hungarian politics.
In the intervening 19 years I’ve not helped much with WFD programmes so when asked to go to Macedonia I was keen to participate. Along with Labour MP John Mann, my mission was to lead sessions on financial policy scrutiny at a conference of Macedonian MPs. We held bi-lateral discussions with the main party leaders in the capital Skopje and then met them altogether in the UNESCO listed world heritage town of Ohrid, near the Albanian border.
As well as the political mix, there was also the ethnic dimension. Like much of the Balkans, Macedonia has a mix of ethnicities once ruled together under the Ottoman Empire. It escaped the terrible wars that engulfed Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. But securing minority rights is one of the key criteria for EU admission, so the Albanians who make up a quarter of Macedonia’s population are also keen on membership. But the Macedonian Parliament will need to improve its ability to audit and question government expenditure before it can join. I hope John and I helped them on the way to becoming the 29th member of the EU.
So the answer to the question “what has the European Union done for me?” is quite a simple one. Peace and prosperity. That success is still spreading to all corners of Europe. Britain should be celebrating a triumph of international relations. Breaking away from our fellow Europeans, returning to the not very “splendid” isolation of 15o years ago, would be an act of madness.