Written by a Conservative activist in the North West of England.
Britain needs a new European future. One that will be outside the European Union, but nonetheless not one that can ignore basic facts of geography. We must remain close to Europe, both politically and economically. Europe is not just a conspiracy of cartographers; it exists merely twenty-one miles from our coast (and which we border directly through the contact of Northern Ireland with the Republic). Furthermore, those things we share, by both instinct and policy, are far more difficult to change than any simple matter of law.
The interchange of business and persons, private and commercial, is far greater with the rest of our continent than any other. This is not going to change after Brexit. In the future we are going to have, distinct from the future some have imagined for us, we must endeavour to make travel and business across the rest of Europe as easy and bureaucracy-free as possible.
One of the failures of Britain’s relationship with the EU was our decision never to fully engage. At the time of last year’s referendum, only approximately three per cent of EU civil servants were British. Had that figure reflected the size of our population, it would have trebled to nine per cent. Britain had one President of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins, in forty-three years of membership. France and Italy have each had two, and even little Luxembourg, with a population of only half a million, has had three in the same time.
Gordon Brown pleased no one by signing the Lisbon Treaty yet failing to turn up in person (leaving David Miliband alone to solemnly shake hands with a perplexed usher). Tony Blair’s vain attempt to become first President of the European Council was similarly painful – yet also a missed opportunity. After Roy Jenkins, Blair was only the second British politician of the first rank to seek a serious European role. The last few years might have been very different had he succeeded.
Our habit has been the same with the appointment of Commissioners. To reward those with no political future in the UK, such as Neil Kinnock or Chris Patten, or appoint obscure peers, most recently Lord Hill, to avoid the difficulty of parliamentary by-elections. We have even turned to the disgraced in recent years appointing Peter Mandelson, fresh from his second scandal, over to Brussels. This only entrenched the British perception that the EU is nothing but a faceless and corrupt bureaucracy of backroom deals. Other countries see their Prime or Deputy Prime Minister, Finance or Foreign Minister, leave government to join the Commission. Why couldn’t William Hague have been persuaded to take the post in 2014? Or perhaps even, a generous gesture, the eminently qualified Nick Clegg?
Besides the failure of our political strategy, we have failed in other areas. The removal of a requirement to learn a foreign language in school by the Blair government in 2004 was a mistake. Not least for the general benefits of language learning, but as a sign of Britain’s preoccupations. Ten years later, the restoration of compulsory language learning (this time at primary school) by the Cameron government was a very welcome decision.
Preparation for Europe after Brexit must be high on our concerns. The Minister for Europe should be a Cabinet post, serving as Deputy to the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps the Foreign Office should be renamed the Department of Foreign, Commonwealth and Europe Affairs? An experienced politician of significant standing – someone along the lines of Michael Fallon or George Osborne – should be the British Ambassador to the EU, with a veteran diplomat as deputy. Indeed, here we must praise the work and pragmatism of Sir Tim Barrow, quickly assimilating to his role in Brussels and quietly addressing the many challenges we face.
The role of the British Council should be expanded, and a generous and large-scale scholarship programme established for European students to study at British universities. Education will be one of our greatest national assets in the post-Brexit world.
Europeans will continue to be our near neighbours, friends and colleagues. Consequently, they are our first and most prominent trading partners and a vital cornerstone of our defence and security. Already they are adapting for our departure – they speak now of the twenty-seven, not the twenty-eight, Member States. Our task, post-Brexit, is to pursue and discover a new relationship with the European Union one which ensures influence despite being distinctive. No matter how rosy other shores look, Britain cannot escape the European continent.