Hong Kong is warm, cloudy and lit up with wonderful flowers – and then suddenly dark and lit by its vertical buildings. It is stirring to see the weight of container shipping moored in the typhoon shelter and queuing for the docks, and the number of skyscrapers (more than New York, an HSBC advert told me as I boarded the plane at Heathrow). Now I am on the 12th floor of my skyscraper hotel, overlooking Robinson Road on the Mid-Levels, and opposite a residential tower, with picture windows overlooking Victoria Harbour. I can look across into several smart looking apartments; the trend is for beige and shiny (marble?) interiors. A family group is playing a Sunday afternoon game of mahjong, others are watching large flatscreen televisions mounted on the wall. One sitting room holds an enormous illuminated tank of tropical fish.
I think this is a good place to talk about Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and specifically about the narrative that has run in the UK media ever since last week’s Eurozone Summit in Brussels. The main objective of the Summit was for the Eurozone’s 17 members to agree – at last – a plan of action for Greece, Italy and the Euro. It almost came too late, but the emergence of an agreement bucked the markets. Many worry that the relief won’t last long.
Anyway, back to this narrative, which goes roughly like this: the Eurozone will probably muddle through because the 17 will agree to integrate their fiscal and economic policies (George Osborne says there is a “remorseless logic” behind this); this process comes too quickly for the Eurozone (and much too quickly for Germany), but may nonetheless leave the Eurozone closer, stronger and richer; and leave Britain ‘on the sidelines’. Scary! This same fear of exclusion ran during the UK’s debate about whether or not we should join the euro (1997 – 2003). The pro-euro campaign, Britain in Europe, best (0nly?) argument was that Britain would be punished for remaining isolated from Europe’s single currency bloc.
As I have written before in this blog, Britain’s national strategy, of which her relationship with the rest of Europe is an element, is complex and ambiguous. There is no consensus about Britain’s role in the world; as a result the British are ambivalent and often divided about what we are for, and where our interests now lie. And thus the (media) tail is able to often wag the (media) dog. Does that work? Anyway, the point is that though I’m not yet confident about exactly how Britain needs to position herself, I do recognise lazy thinking when I see it. Here’s why I don’t buy this paranoia:
- First of all, we must do what we wish to do, not what others wish on us. It is not nationalistic to believe that the strategy of a country should be directed by its citizens, and not other governments or organisations. For every nation, sound policy is based on self-interest. Do other mature democracies possess media, academic and even political elites who are as reluctant to think constructively about the best interests of their own country? Would their influence be as great if we had some democratically mandated sense of where we wanted to get to.
- Britain is, geographically, a European country. The European Union as a trading bloc and a forum for co-operation is a no-brainer – if we didn’t already have it, we would want to invent it. A large share (but not the majority) of our trade is with Europe. The Continent will always be strategically, commercially and culturally important to Britain. I think Britain should be open minded about more defence co-operation with other EU members, but that’s an issue for another day. The point I want to make now is that we are, nonetheless, simultaneously a member of the global community: the close relationship with the US and members of the Commonwealth, the legacy of Hong Kong (and, sort of, Singapore), London’s status as the world’s financial centre and one of the world’s cultural, commercial and residential capitals. And the English language, our military capability, nuclear status and membership of the UN Security Council. Let’s not limit our imagination to Europe.
- The Eurozone’s problems (the insolvency of some of its members, the lack of global competitiveness of most of them, poor demographics, the thorny politics of (i) austerity and (ii) further integration) are not going to go away quickly. The Eurozone will remain relatively rich, but it will grow slowly. It is an OK bet for the 21st century, but there are others we should be making too. Europe certainly shouldn’t be our only play.
- We should be proud of what Britain stands for: democracy, fairness, the robust defence of minority rights. Our aid programme is more generous than almost any other nation (and a very good thing too). Our politics is transparent and by any sensible measure free of corruption. Although they are under increasing threat, our universities remain world leaders; I believe the financial crisis will breed a new generation of entrepreneurs. Of course we make mistakes and could improve things but we are a country made up of human beings and all human beings are fragile. We are an asset to the world, and to any association of nations. We will continue to play an important role in the world. Let us take ourselves seriously.
- The world’s sidelines don’t run in a loop around the Eurozone. The world’s wealth and power is moving steadily away from Europe. This is the story of our time. The Eurozone’s crisis is a wound self-inflicted by nations in decline. It is massively to our advantage that we are not a part of the Eurozone, or a part of Europe as France or Italy is a part of Europe. As an island nation fluent in English (it is no longer ‘our’ language), we should be much better placed to adapt to these global shifts. That we aren’t adapting better is because we aren’t working hard enough, most of us aren’t in full possession of the facts, and because Whitehall’s default mode is reactive. Which brings me back to our need for a national strategy.