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Why “influence” over the European Union probably isn’t worth having

One of the main arguments made in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union is that such membership is the only way Britain can exert “influence” over European Union decision making. If we are on the outside “we” (whatever that might mean) will be ignored. So, goes the argument.

I suppose this presupposes that British influence is a “good thing”, something I find rather surprising because for many euro-federalists it seems that one of the primary attractions of the EU is its un-Britishness. But I digress.

Assuming they are being honest the question has to be: is it true? Do you have more influence by being inside the tent or outside?

There are some pretty compelling counter-examples. I think we can agree that Britain had much more influence by being outside Nazi Europe than inside. Ditto Britain and the Soviet Empire. The American War of Independence seems to have been a spectacular example: improving life both in the United States and the British Empire – by warning the British of the likely costs of being unduly oppressive.

But there are examples from other walks of life. Does anyone seriously think that Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would have had anything like the impact they have had by being corporate insiders?

A lot of this assumes that Britain is in the right. What if she’s not? What if Britain is wrong? Well, that’s fine too. If we discover that the EU is right that’s fine. All we have to do is to adopt EU policies. There’s no need for membership.

All of which rather puts me in mind of something that Natalie Solent wrote a few years ago, picked up here by Brian. The world needs diversity.

There’s another part to this that bugs me. To have influence pre-supposes disagreement. You can’t have influence over a decision if you and every other party to it already agree. And if there is disagreement that implies that influence can only be bought at the price of others going against their perceived interests. Now, that’s all very well if you’re dealing with a bunch of tribesmen who don’t have machine guns but in the case of Europe you’re not. You are dealing with countries that are just as modern and as powerful as you are. If you succeed in exercising your “influence” and by doing so make them go against their perceived interests that is at very least going to cause resentment and probably lead to some continental “influence” against your perceived interests.

Oh, and Happy New Year, by the way.

8 comments to Why “influence” over the European Union probably isn’t worth having

  • Dave Walker

    Well put (Godwin’s Law notwithstanding).

    Looking at it from a cost / benefit perspective (and British self-interest), the question boils down to “is it worth having seats at the table in Brussels / Strasbourg, if the price is giving away the table in Westminster?”

  • Johnathan Pearce

    This is an excellent article. The point about the US and Britain is particularly apt and I had not thought of that point before.

    Happy NY to you!

  • john sullivan

    Since we have no “influence”, then it matters not. 🙂

  • We had loads of influence in the EU, until that nasty David Cameron tried to actually use it to influence that nice M Sarkosy to agree to a piddling little guarantee over City of London regulations.

    Then we ceased to have any influence and became a bunch of xenophobic little englanders who wanted to take our ball and go home.

    In which case, say I, let us abandon our huge influence in Europe and seek to enhance our interests in the rest of the world.

    Including those bits of it that are growing in spite of not being members of the european union.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes we have no “influence” (and never have had any) – and it would not matter if we did.

  • Regional

    Having influence in Europe got you and the Empire into two transnational wars which very nearly bankrupted England.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Some concrete examples of the “influence” or lack thereof that has been actually exerted by the UK in the EU would have been helpful.

    It seems to me that the UK has had “influence” only when it sided with France against Germany, and that kind of “influence” is unlikely to be good for either British or European people (as distinct from the ruling class). In other words, I think we in continental Europe might be better off (more economically free) with the UK out of the EU.

    I might be wrong on this but it seems that the UK has never managed to build alliances in the EU the way France did. You know the Arab saying: it is better to be the Englishman’s enemy than his friend: if you are his enemy, he’ll try to buy you; if you are his friend, he’ll sell you.
    And a happy New Year!

  • Paul Marks

    I am not sure I understand Reginal’s comment – it may be an isolationist one (Pat Buchanon and his errrr “interesting” idea that Neville Chamberlain was a war monger and Britain should have kept the peace with that nice Mr Hitler in 1939), however it could also be a comment claiming that it is the EEC/EU that has kept the peace in Europe and pretented a third “transnational war”.

    Actually it is NATO that has kept the peace in Europe – i.e. the United States military. “The peace in Europe” line is perhaps the most dishonest of all the dishonest defences of the EEC/EU.