Brexit campaigners are currently unhappy about Germany’s ‘threat’ to the UK, that “out means out” if we choose to leave the EU.
The thing is, this isn’t a threat. It’s a warning.
There’s an old joke. It tells us that a good friend is one who will come and bail us out of the police cells; but a best friend is the one who’ll be sitting in the next cell saying, “What a rush!”
As a joke it works well. But it is just humour. In reality, the true friend is one who wants to protect us. She’s the one who tries to shield us from harm, even when it’s self-inflicted. The one who’ll put himself between us and danger.
When the USA first set to its course of military aggression in response to 9/11, the UK stood by it. Because we were allies. And so we were – but we weren’t very good friends. America’s true friend in those years was France – the nation that said, “No. Don’t do this. You’re angry and upset, but this is not going to help.”
France was widely vilified across the US and mocked here in the UK. Old prejudices were indulged: the French were once again cowardly ‘surrender-monkeys’ (this of the nation whose guerillas fought on fiercely against the Third Reich even after occupation; a nation that’s won virtually every conflict it’s ever fought; and that more-or-less won the US War of Independence – which was, don’t forget, largely a proxy war between France and Britain). Perhaps you remember the nonsense of ‘freedom fries’, as ‘patriotic’ Americans did all they could to show their contempt for their nation’s oldest friend – simply because that old friend didn’t want to see them end up in that metaphorical police cell.
And eventually France capitulated, realising they weren’t going to sway their friend. And now we have a wrecked Afghanistan, a wrecked Iraq, Da’esh gleefully exploiting the power vacuum, a hugely expanded terrorist threat, boosted radicalisation – effects which France itself suffers along with those of us who went enthusiastically into war, and ended up suffering the consequences.
Germany, like us, is a powerful economy within the EU. They almost single-handedly bailed out Greece during that country’s recent financial trouble – we, you may recall, refused to make any substantial contribution. (Remember, according to Brexiters, we have no influence or control in Europe.)
The Germans have no particular axe to grind in this. They will be fine whichever way we jump. If anything, they will likely enjoy greater influence in the single market should we leave – influence that will affect us all the more strongly when we subsequently seek (as we will certainly have to) an independent trade deal with that market.
But like good friends, they are trying to warn us. They are trying to make sure we don’t end up in that police cell in the first place.
The Brexit campaign is built in no small part on the idea that, if we leave the EU, we can simply negotiate our own trade deals with other countries – with the USA, with China, and with the EU itself. But this argument is based on the assumption that these nations and trading blocs will rush to engage in these negotiations.
As foreign policy, this would be pretty arrogant. President Obama was slated last week by the Leave camp for, again, ‘threatening’ us. Led by the right-wing press, they complained bitterly that he was only interested in what was best for America.
Well, so he is – and why not? It is the American people he serves, not us. But he is well placed to tell us how American interests may affect us should we approach his country as an independent trader. His country’s priority is to settle trade arrangements with the EU. We would necessarily take a back seat to that, however long those negotiations may take. He is not ‘threatening’ us – he is telling is what the consequences of our decision will be.
(Of course that doesn’t stop the likes of the Daily Mail or the Daily Express from howling with theatrical outrage, claiming that his intervention has boosted the case for Brexit – but if it has, then it’s because of a foolish and reckless pride that’s blinded British people to the basic facts of the situation. We are not an empire any more, and we cannot stand aloof and simply expect others to recognise our special status in the world.)
Likewise, Germany is not ‘threatening’ us when they tell us that “if we’re out we’re out”. They are telling us what the consequences of our decision will be.
Representatives from Switzerland, Norway and Albania – countries whose trade models the Leave campaign offer as desirable options for Britain – are not ‘threatening’ us when they tell us we would be better where we are. These are countries each of whom has remained outside the EU, yet they are economically compelled – as we would be – to seek trade with the single market. To access that trade, those countries still have to comply with EU rules and regulations, but have no control or influence over those rules. They are not threatening us. They are warning us what the consequences of our decision will be, based on their own experiences.
And it would be arrogance and pride that lead us to assume the EU or the US would come running when we snapped our fingers. Why would they do that? Why would the world rush to talk to us when, through Brexit, we will be sending a very clear message to Europe, and to Europe’s existing trading partners, that we are not willing to play the team game? We are not willing to work with other countries to secure favourable terms for all? We want what we want, and have no interest in anything else. Why should we be rewarded for such an attitude with favourable trade terms and priority in negotiations?
Our friends and trading partners are not threatening us. They are warning us. We are about to make a decision that will affect our country for generations to come. They have little invested in this. They are outside observers who are not wrapped up in the emotion and rhetoric that we’re going through. They are giving us level-headed advice, and telling us what the consequences of our decision will be.
The Leave campaign frequently attack Remain supporters for indulging in scaremongering. We only concentrate on the negatives, they say: what Brexit will do to our economy, to our job market, to our position on the world stage. It’s all doom and gloom! Well, perhaps that’s true – but maybe we’ve all grown a little too used to the benefits of EU membership, such that by now we only really notice the flaws. And those flaws are being exploited by right-wing interests that want to pull us away from our friends and partners in Europe, to push us into isolationism.
But since the arguments of the Leave camp are largely dependent on a certain cloudy utopianism – “It’ll be better; we’ll have control; we’ll have sovereignty; we’ll be richer, more influential…” – it falls to the Remain side to show how insubstantial those promises actually are, how little of substance the Leave side actually offer, and to highlight what we’ll be walking into when we do this.
That we will do this I still have no doubt – but while there is still a chance, however slim, to avoid it, it’s worth making a noise about.