Britain at the crossroads- or is it?

, by Chris Wilford

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Britain at the crossroads- or is it?

Cameron will be delivering his much anticipated speech on the future of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union on Friday. Much rests on the British Prime Minister’s shoulders. In or out or something else— this article will explore the current situation and argue that things are not as critical as they seem.

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, is set to deliver the second most important speech of his career in the Netherlands on Friday (the most important being his star turn at the 2005 Conservative Part Conference, delivered without notes, that led to his eventual victory in the Conservative Party leadership contest that year). Speculation about the contents of the speech is reaching fever pitch in the UK press and one thing is certain, whatever he says, he is sure to upset someone.

On the domestic front he is faced with pressure from many within his own party terrified that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is luring away their core vote. The tabloids are in full voice about the threat to liberty and the economy from the Eurocrats in Brussels, as well as apocalyptic visions of the impact of Bulgarian and Romanian hordes set to hit austerity Britain when restrictions are relaxed on their ability to live and work in the UK from December 2013.

His pro-Europe coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats are distinctly not amused by the posturing of Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne whilst Labour think it is all a nonsense and the approach Cameron is taking plain dangerous. Add into the mix big business stating that a Britain outside of the EU would not be a good to place to invest and the likes of Lord Heseltine, Cameron’s own adviser on growth, criticising his EU strategy by stating that any referendum on EU membership would be a punt and drive away investment, and you can see that Cameron has a tricky balancing act in store.

Overseas, bemused European leaders are fielding questions left, right and centre from British journalists about their supposed support for Cameron’s push for EU reform and a renegotiated relationship between the UK and Brussels. Meanwhile the Obama administration in the form of Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary responsible for European Affairs, has made it clear where the United States stands on the issue: Britain’s membership of the EU is in the American interest.

So what is Cameron going to say and, more importantly, what is in the European interest?

“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”, so said Margaret Thatcher in her seminal speech to the College of Europe in Bruges, 1988. She also cautioned, “The Community is not an end in itself. Nor is it an institutional device to be constantly modified according to the dictates of some abstract intellectual concept. Nor must it be ossified by endless regulation.” The truth is that many people across the continent, particularly the young, are suffering. With high unemployment and economies in turmoil, the EU does often seem abstract and distant— a community that has turned against its people.

The figures speak for themselves: those not in education, employment or training (NEET) account for 15% of the total young adult population across the European Union. In Spain alone over half of young people are out of work, with an unemployment rate of 52% for those under 25. This is not sustainable nor does it bode well for the future of the European project. There is a financial cost to all of this, a recent study by the Eurofond research agency found that the young unemployed cost the region’s economy 153 billion a year. Such young people, the study found, are also more likely to opt out of democratic participation

Set against this backdrop, maybe Britain is better off just turning its back, burning the diktats from Brussels and retreating into cosy isolation? No, as much as it is castigated for being a troublesome partner Britain is a force for good in the EU. With a rich liberal democratic tradition and as one of the strongest economies and militaries in Europe, it is a vital component of the European project in an increasingly hostile and competitive world. For Britain, three million jobs depend on trade within Europe in the UK, which is still the largest market for British goods and services.

Cameron is well aware of the latter. At a time of anaemic growth, anything that jeopardises economic recovery or investment is to be avoided. He is also aware that his Coalition partners will not be best pleased if he proffers an immediate referendum. With an increasingly strident Labour Party any further split between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives could make things very tricky indeed domestically. On Friday, with the American warning ringing fresh in his ears, Cameron will reiterate that he wants the UK to remain in the EU.

He will be right in doing so. This is not to say that the EU does not need to change and that it needs to become more democratically responsive to its people, it is merely to state that the UK should be working towards these goals from within the EU. In this time of great upheaval, now is not the time to add to the uncertainty.

We Europeans have got used to the peace. We forget the conflict and turmoil that have shaped so much of our shared history. Our union should not be perfect, nor should we want that for as Thatcher also stated in 1988, “utopia never comes, because we know we should not like it if it did.” Cameron will echo such concerns on Friday. He will talk about Britain in Europe, Europe in the world and our shared future. He will urge the case for reform but, ultimately, he will not go much further.

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