Coming off the Fence on Europe

I like Michael Gove a lot – in fact, I think he’s one of the best Conservative ministers we have and are likely to enjoy for some time to come; but I’m a little saddened by his wanting Britain to leave the European Union. Not, I think, necessarily because this requires him to team up with two of the most unpleasant political figures in the country – the dual horrors of Nigel Farage and George Galloway, who represent living proof that extremists of Left and Right eventually come to resemble each other – but because in many ways it makes the case for remaining a little less attractive.

Gove is a profoundly empathetic figure, and one who, it seems to me, has genuinely honest and noble intentions. The cosy consensus or easy answer is not enough for him – and the fact that this is a remarkable trait says enough about how ministers of his calibre and quality are needed.

He has done great, pioneering work in education; and (though this is hardly my area of expertise) he seems to be working the same magic in justice too, where he replaces a minister whom many of my more legally minded friends consider a profoundly negative influence.

All of these actions – in addition to his almost singularly principled stance on many recent foreign policy debates – make his case considerably harder to answer than those advanced by the aforementioned relics and wrecks. He is not a politician to trade on faux bonhomie or outright racially-tinged pandering (and nor, unlike Galloway or Farage, is it easy to imagine Gove praising dictators in the mould of Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad).

But difficult though it is, answering Gove’s case is an essential one; in a very substantial way, he offers the decent face of the Out campaign. And it would not do to avoid these arguments and these opponents.

In answer to Gove’s challenge, as laid out in a compelling and eloquent essay which found publication yesterday, it seems reasonable to take on what appears to be the crux of his argument. In a pertinent and distinctly un-rhetorical question, Gove asked likely voters: ‘Are we really too small, too weak and too powerless to make a success of self-rule?’

Obviously, the first objection to this mode of thinking is that ‘self-rule’ is something Britain more or less already enjoys. Though we are certainly subject to laws made by the various authorities and decision-making bodies associated with the European Union, it is purely fallacious to suggest that Britain and individual Britons are not in charge of our own country and our own destinies. We didn’t join the Euro (a question on which I am distinctly agnostic); we did not bear witness to many recent financial travails to have swept the continent; we are not, in this calculation, really in hock to anyone in Brussels at all.

And though people may complain about the Human Rights Act or the Common Agricultural Policy, as many – including myself – are occasionally wont to do, it seems slightly odd to suggest that these aspects of European membership are anything other than minor irritations – if they are negative features of the national experience at all.

I will not argue – here or anywhere else – that the European Union is perfect (and to say so in any case would be absurd); nor, or not really, am I going to say that it is good – at least not in a philosophical sense. Instead – as a virtual single issue voter – I can offer only one fundamental defence of the European Union and, hence, of the status quo. Our membership of this organisation is necessary; it is vital.

Because if we were not a member, the EU would be fundamentally weaker; it would be denied the military and financial muscle we in Britain can provide – and this would be a bad thing.

Just look at what happens when the European Union is perceived to be weak, or distracted, or otherwise engaged. Nations are invaded; people are killed; and geopolitical games which ultimately affect us all are waged – and they are won.

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Russia annexed Crimea. Russia has intervened in Syria. These are, of course, the facts of the matter. And it is a little frightening how routinely they are being treated in some circles. Though Russia and President Vladimir Putin have been roundly condemned for these actions – though not, notably (or not sufficiently), by either Galloway or Farage – the situation has effectively changed for good. It is the ‘new normal’ for an aggressor to occupy and annex territory within the European continent and its environs.

The European Union certainly did not prevent this from happening – though if it had acted a little tougher in the first place it may have helped – but a coming together of European states, especially in times such as these, may well be one of the only reasons preventing it from happening again.

It would be foolish, I think, to claim that the EU has prevented war within the European continent. (In most cases economic self-interest has done the heavy lifting there.) But it is reasonable to suggest, I would argue, that it has done quite a lot to prevent external aggressors from being quite so aggressive. And to weaken the EU at this time would be a sure-fire way of making the world – and the continent – that little bit more dangerous.

And the possibility of that scares me; and it should scare you.

This is not a complex economic argument (though I’m sure arguments of that type – as well as a few truly uncomplicated ones – will saturate media coverage of the upcoming referendum). This is not appeal to high-minded concepts like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘freedom’, both of which can prove rather nebulous. Instead this is an argument from experience (maybe even one derived from fear) – and, perhaps more pertinently, genuine concern for the future. It’s an argument for the safety and surety of the status quo. Perhaps it’s even a conservative one.