One of so much that those who signed the Declaration of Independence got right was the recognition that working to change the system from within was going nowhere. The era of “patient sufferance” had, they understood, to come to an end: The time of “petitions for redress” had passed.
Open Europe runs, I believe, one of the best think tanks on the EU that there is. That is not meant to damn with faint praise: Its research is invaluable. But Open Europe has a blind spot: the belief that the EU can be reformed to a degree that would make it an acceptable place for Britain to stay. Unfortunately, it cannot. The EU has reached a point where (decades late, admittedly) its politics are now roughly in sync with where its founders might have wanted them to be. To imagine that, absent some external crisis, there will now be a turning back or even a significant change of direction is absurd. Ever closer union means what it says.
And yet Open Europe and, of course, Britain’s out-of-its-depth Conservative leadership continue to pretend that ‘reform’ is still possible. In arguing that, they provide useful, if unintended, support for those who want to keep things just as they are. Open Europe’s new report arguing that Britain should put forward a “heavy-hitting” candidate as ‘its’ EU commissioner (the UK has the right to have one of its own in the EU’s top bureaucratic team) is a classic of that genre. Don’t get me wrong: the UK should nominate someone who is a heavy hitter, and, for that matter someone who—unlike David Cameron— understands how Brussels works. But it needs to be clear what that heavy hitter should be hitting. Open Europe would like to see the British candidate land the Internal Market job (he or she would be responsible for ensuring that the EU’s single market works well) or, failing that, the Competition (antitrust) portfolio. This is typical of the thinking that the EU’s facsimile of free trade trumps the loss of control over much of immigration, the arrest warrant (long topic), the micro-regulation, the spending, and the rest of the whole post-democratic bag of tricks. It should not, and it must not.
Even if we do accept Open Europe’s reasoning, and agree that it is important to secure a job like the Internal Market slot, it is essential to recognize that the best such an individual can do is to make things a little less bad. But a spoonful of sugar should not be allowed to help the poison go down. If anything, Britain’s nominee should become Commissioner for Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud. The last two parts of that portfolio offer a great deal of opportunity to an energetic person prepared to turn his or her attention to the institutions of the EU.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of Open Europe’s stance is the repetition of the myth that Britain has ‘reform-minded’ allies within the EU. Open Europe cites Sweden (set, incidentally, to elect a left-wing government in September) and the Netherlands as two examples. The reality is that Britain does not. Yes, there are countries that see things the same way as the UK on this topic or that, and there are others that have proved themselves adept at murmuring sweet supportive nothings, but when it comes down to it, these allies are nowhere to be seen. Britain lost the Juncker vote 26-2, supported only by Hungary’s pariah prime minister.
As recently as ten days ago, I thought that a compromise would be found [good heavens, Dan, really?]. Surely the other members wouldn’t actively drive Britain to exit, would they? In the event, they could hardly have been clearer. First, the new Finnish prime minister hectored us, telling us to ’smell the coffee’ and realise how dependent we were on the EU, whatever form it took. Then Angela Merkel, coming out of the meeting, gave a press conference in which she said that ever-closer union must apply to all 28 member states, that ‘reform’ in her mind applied to economic liberalisation, not to any repatriation of powers, and that the process whereby European political parties nominated the Commission President, as if the EU were a single federal electorate, would henceforth be normal.
To talk now of a looser EU, a more comfortable EU, an EU in which powers can be returned to the national capitals, is preposterous. A British leader who tried to take such a line would be laughed out of office. The EU has just entrusted its political direction to a man who has spent his entire life campaigning – perfectly honestly, to be fair to him – for a United States of Europe. Among other things, he wants a common EU citizenship with reciprocal voting rights in national elections; a pan-European minimum wage; a unified EU diplomatic corps; a federal police agency; and EU-wide taxation. And this is the man whom 26 out of 28 governments have just voted to appoint.
There will be no reform. It is in or out. America’s founders would have recognized that reality. They would have known what to do.