The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.