At the start of this week I was in Washington DC, speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on what the European referendum means for the United States of America. It was a discussion I repeated with friends, journalists and politicians.
On the face of it, the United States should be a natural ally in the case for leaving the European Union. The right to make your own laws, elect your own politicians, control your own borders and spend your own tax dollars are concepts that the American people, not to mention the US government, hold very dear indeed. America is a proud nation, and to them, it is quite rightly inconceivable that a single scrap of liberty and justice be surrendered beyond their own borders.
I pointed out that while we are members of the EU our parliament is no longer the ultimate authority for making our laws and that we can be over-ruled by the unelected European Court. It came as a surprise to many that under the principle of free movement of people within the EU we cannot determine who enters our country. Not only have 1.2million EU citizens decided to settle in the UK over the past decade but if any, or all, the migrants currently streaming across the continent are granted citizenship in any other EU state then they too will have a right to settle in the UK. They rightly asked if this would not pose a huge potential security risk to our people and were shocked to be told that we have no say in the matter as long as we are an EU member. When I then told them that we had to pay for the failure of the euro because our budgetary contribution is linked to our GDP growth at a time when the Eurozone economy is in the doldrums, they started to get the idea and when I explained that we are not allowed to conduct our own trade deals they started to look aghast.
It was very clear that most of those I spoke to had never been exposed to these arguments before. Yet when these arguments are placed succinctly before them, most Americans I spoke to began to understand the appeal of Brexit. There is an ingrained perception among many in the States that Britain is ‘Europe’s phone number’ – a country with the closest historical, cultural and political ties that facilitates America’s dealings with Brussels. It comes as a huge and unwelcome surprise to them that Britain has had to pay such a high price for EU membership.
Perhaps their attitude is understandable. America has been too far removed from the turmoil of the eurozone to recognise that the European Union is in its death-throes. It’s utter failure to react or reform under pressure, both internal and external, has left the EU as an anachronism; a vast bureaucracy that robs member states of their democracy whilst failing to provide tangible benefits. A pattern is emerging of more and more of our legislation being made overseas. These laws are predominantly interferences in trade and constitutional affairs; a situation that would be utterly intolerable to any US government. Most Americans are equally unaware of the terrible price that is being paid by young Europeans for the failure of the euro, with youth unemployment above 50 per cent in some countries. They wonder why the people of the EU tolerate it.
In light of these arguments, many Americans I spoke to found it incredible that the Civil Service is making no contingency plans for a ‘Leave’ vote. They find it astonishing that the British government refuses to prepare for what is a highly possible outcome and wonder what such a policy might mean for them. They were as shocked as I am that our government should be so worried about the “signals” it sends out during the campaign that vital interests may be neglected.
The final issue I dealt with was the forthcoming visit by President Obama to the UK where government sources have let it be known he will make the case for the UK to remain in the EU (though this was strenuously played down by US officials.)
Of course, the President is free to say what he likes but there are several points his advisers ought to make. The first is that this is a highly sensitive political issue that splits the British people down the middle. Protocol suggests that our allies do not involve themselves in the domestic affairs of others and, given the offence that many will take from such an involvement over the EU referendum, goodwill would inevitably be lost, at least from a proportion of the population. That would be a great pity. At the same time, it would be wise to guard against any accusations of double standards. The Americans would not dream of having an open border with Mexico or allowing a foreign court to over-rule the US Supreme Court. They should not wish the European equivalent on us unless they find themselves open to the charge of hypocrisy.
A Britain strong and free is not only in our interests but in America’s too. Just open any history book!