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Brexit: Taking The Long View

With the Brexit vote date fast approaching, markets and companies are growing concerned at the very real prospect that Britain may indeed decide to leave the EU and attempt to strike out alone. Sterling has weakened considerably against other major currencies as investors attempt to hedge against the uncertainty surrounding the outcome and consequences of the vote, while companies try to plan ahead despite the almost total lack of clarity on what a vote to leave will really mean.

In this context, I feel it is useful to take a longer-term and somewhat historical view of Britain’s EU membership. In 1979 the then British ambassador to France Sir Nicholas Henderson wrote a famously candid and impassioned final despatch before leaving his post and retiring from the diplomatic service. Entitled “Britain’s Decline: Its Causes and Consequences”, the despatch charts Britain’s foreign policy and economic decline in the post-war years in the context of Britain’s 1976 near-bankruptcy and request for aid from the IMF.

In his view Britain missed a vital opportunity to join with France under the (admittedly flawed) Schuman plan in the early 1950s as trailblazers, which led to France allying with Germany to create the beginnings of the Union we are now members of. In his own words: “For long we underestimated the economic prospects of our European neighbours and for even longer we overestimated our own strength and influence in relation to them.” While Britain’s early policy towards a united Europe was evidently a product of its times it clearly put us in a weaker position for our eventual negotiations to join the EEC throughout the 1960s (with multiple vetoes by France’s de Gaulle), only to succeed in 1973.

Henderson concludes his despatch with his view of the shape that future foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe should take:

“If we are to defend our interests in Europe there must be a change in the style of our policy towards it. This does not mean giving things up or failing to assert our rights and requirements. It does mean, however, behaving as though we were fully and irrevocably committed to Europe. We should be able to put at the service of the community the imagination, tolerance and commonsense that have formed our own national institutions. We could have ideas to contribute…”

The parallels between Henderson’s views in 1979 upon leaving Paris and our impending referendum are quite clear. In the decades following World War II we overestimated our strength and influence and underestimated the potential of our European neighbours, finally putting ourselves in a weaker negotiating position locally and further afield. Now we have an opportunity once again to decide upon our position in Europe; our experience last century should at least serve as a warning against similar hubris.

To paraphrase Henderson’s view of our future foreign policy, we must seize this opportunity not just to remain in the EU, but to negotiate our role in it, to become instrumental in its policy-making and direction, and to commit fully to the idea. We have come to this point in part because Britain’s public involvement has been half-hearted at best, and the nation has felt subjected to Brussels’s decision-making, though the decisions made in Brussels are fully within Britain’s influence if we are fully committed to its process. The key to our success within the EU lies in our contribution, knowledge and leadership alongside other countries’. There is no denying the considerable cultural differences between the very disparate EU states, yet we remain stronger as an association of common interests than as a loose collection of rivals.

Germany, as clearly very recently and separately stated by both Angela Merkel and Der Spiegel, is emphatically in favour of Britain remaining, indeed Merkel herself has been vocally supportive of David Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership. As Der Spiegel’s editors put it, “the only internationally known politician in favour of a Brexit is Donald Trump – and, if nothing else does, that alone should make the British worry”.

We still have a strong and respected position in both Europe and further afield and we now have a decision to make: either we remain and use this opportunity to reinforce and build upon that position, consolidating our position as committed contributors to a strong European Union, or we leave and start building new international relationships from a position of weakness, ignoring the fact that negotiation and compromise are necessary and healthy elements of a nation’s policy, to be embraced, not avoided.

Note: Sir Nicholas Henderson was recalled from retirement by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and invited to serve as Ambassador to Washington, one of the most senior ambassadorial roles in the service. An abridged version of his valedictory despatch from Paris may be found in Parris & Bryson’s excellent collection of such valedictory despatches, “Parting Shots”, Penguin, 2011, pp.205-213.

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