Originally published in The Times.
Never underestimate Britain. It is the world’s fifth biggest economy and fourth largest military power and London is the world’s most important financial centre. With British institutions copied almost everywhere and with English the global second language, Britain’s soft power arguably exceeds that of any other country.
That’s why any British decision to withdraw from the European Union would have seismic consequences. Make no mistake, the European project is in deep trouble. Open borders have exposed the continent to peaceful invasion. The euro has destroyed Mediterranean countries’ economic freedom and shackled German taxpayers to endless subsidies of their less efficient neighbours. European social security systems are groaning under demographic change. National security is at risk from home-grown terrorists. Economic security has been sapped by statist rules pouring out of Brussels. And long-cherished national identities are under threat because establishment leaders have been too dismissive of their peoples’ instinctive love of country in favour of a nebulous European ideal.
On the other hand, the comparative tranquillity, prosperity, freedom and fairness makes Europe a magnet to the wider world and membership of the EU the supreme policy objective of all its outside neighbours. In Europe, Britain has always pushed for less regulation, freer trade with the wider world, stronger links with the US and the Anglosphere, closer and more effective national security cooperation, and a stronger military response to a bullying Russia and the Islamist insurgency. There is no international problem that British involvement doesn’t improve. There is no international organisation that British membership doesn’t help. Much as it surprises and even pains this instinctive Anglophile and admirer of the British Empire, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Britain’s challenge now is to save Europe, not leave it.
The argument that Britain would flounder outside Europe is both demeaning and wrong. People buy British goods and use British services because they want them, not because they have to or because Britain is in the EU. Some investors may be deterred if Britain left but, without EU regulation, Britain would almost certainly be a better place to do business. Britain could do good trade deals outside the union but it would take time. Europe could raise tariffs against a non-EU Britain but a lower pound would almost certainly more than maintain British competitiveness.
Back in the 1970s when it first joined, Britons feared that they were failing while Europe was succeeding. No one thinks that now. In part, the Brexit campaign is a welcome expression of pride in Britain. I admire the conservative MPs who are driving it and who have Britain’s best interests at heart but respectfully suggest that, at least for now, remaining is Britain’s best way to lead.
Britons are right to be concerned about Euro-regulation damaging the City of London and about paying social security to the families of guest workers from Eastern Europe. They are entitled to chafe at loss of sovereignty to the EU even though every country gives it up to some extent through international agreements. They have every reason to be alarmed at the potential influx of people from European partners that have lost control of their borders, unlike Britain. Among all the catastrophic errors that European leaders have made, by no means the least was failing to recognise that David Cameron’s proposals were in the best interests of Europe, not just Britain. The only way to save Europe is to acknowledge that it is a union of sovereign states.
Still, Britain’s duty is to keep trying, not to give up. Whatever the EU might decree, the British parliament remains sovereign over the United Kingdom. The best course is to continue to demand that Europe change, not to insist that Britain leave. Would any of the crises now gripping Europe or the wider world be helped by a new upheaval, this time caused by the one country hitherto least likely to abandon its friends or to surrender its values? There’s much to dislike about the EU but very little that would be improved if Britain left.