When Scotland voted in its own referendum back in 2014, many in the rest of the Union argued that they too should have a say in the country’s future.
A similar sentiment is rapidly emerging on the continent, with a growing sense that an important part of Europe’s own future is in the hands of a small fraction of its electorate. Europe’s fear is not only of a potential domino effect deriving from a Brexit vote, but of the loss of a powerful voice for Europe’s enlargement; one which has never quite been permitted to hit the highest notes that it was capable of singing.
Britain has long been one of the leading advocates of an expanded Europe, spearheading calls for further enlargement whilst other countries demonstrated considerable caution and outright scepticism. The spread of the EU has consolidated democracy in transition countries and opened-up new avenues for trade and investment. It has induced a rapid transformation from the days of the Iron Curtain and a Europe divided ideologically and physically.
The transition from war to reconciliation continues to drive support for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. Twenty years on from the devastating war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the accession perspective has underpinned tangible, albeit at times frustratingly slow, progress towards stable peace and normalization. The entire former Yugoslavia, along with Albania, has received tangible British support and encouragement - both in Brussels and the region itself - for its European path. There is no Plan B. The region belongs in the EU and the EU remains incomplete until this corner of Europe is finally brought into the fold.
Nowhere is this British enthusiasm for an expanded Europe more noticeable than with respect to Turkey, one of the most strategically important countries for the entire continent. Turkey’s importance was well understood long before refugees started streaming across the country into Greece. Yet the intransigence of certain EU member states, particularly France, combined with Turkey’s own regression on a number of fonts, has stalled an accession process that begun several decades ago. Membership is not imminent - contrary to the exaggerated claims of some - but the prospect of membership provides an important anchor for reform efforts. Brexit may be the death knell of any Turkish prospects for closer ties with the EU and European influence in this vital NATO ally.
As Europe’s eastern flank is ever more destabilized by Russia’s expansionary foreign policy, so the need for Europe grows more pronounced. Reformers in the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and even Russia itself continue to look towards the EU as a beacon of hope. North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt) continues to benefit from deeper economic integration with the EU. British policy in each has been grounded in supporting closer ties with the EU.
It was the realisation that Britain’s own prosperity is inextricably tied with that of the rest of Europe which has motivated support for the export of European values, ideals and standards. A more stable and prosperous Europe has always meant a more stable and prosperous United Kingdom.
In an increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent world, Britain is fundamentally affected by developments on the continent. The idea that the country can simply pull up the drawbridge and “take our country back” ignores the ebbs and flows of the globalised age in which we live. A consensual pooling of sovereignty allows Britain to exert influence in spheres where on its own it would be largely impotent. Such arrangements leverage up British potential and allows for it to disseminate expertise in areas where it excels. European best practice is often British best practice.
Britain is and always will be an independent sovereign nation. But a vote for Brexit on June 23rd will mean it is a nation which has cut off its nose to spite its face. Brexit is presented as a panacea to all the county’s problems, without a vision for how any of these problems would actually be remedied. It is a policy supposedly designed to make the country great again whilst negating everything which has made Britain great; an openness to the the world and the challenges it faces.
Britain’s voice in Europe has been vital to expanding the Union into new domains. From post-communist to post-war transitions, Britain has been a leading advocate for the EU’s transformative power; a power which is even more vital today as instability spreads throughout eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Europe’s periphery is no longer peripheral to the continent’s fortunes.
Being in Europe is not a barrier to the rest of the world but a powerful amplifier of British influence and interests. When Britain leads in Europe, the country and the continent benefit. In an age of weak and indecisive leadership, Britain’s voice and vision is vital for the future of the European project. If Britain turns its back on the EU, then Europe may well turn its back on the very promises which have driven reform and spurred progress. The consequences will exert a heavy weight on future generations; one which we will all live to regret.
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