The UK has been affected by events in mainland Europe since history began, as mainland Europe has been affected by events on the British Isles. In response to Matt Wood’s post ‘David Cameron Needs a Vision for the Future of Europe’, Konrad Schiemann, former Judge at the European Court of Justice from 2004 to 2012, nominated by the UK, argues that whilst it is understandable that the UK Parliament asks what is best for the UK, it might be more beneﬁcial in the long-term, both for Europe but also for the UK itself, to ask ‘what is best for Europe?’.
Any historical perspective makes plain that the UK, like every other European country, has always been hugely affected by what is happening elsewhere in Europe. Britain was colonised by the Romans; the Spanish Empire sought domination as did the French under Louis XIV and Napoleon, the Germans under the Kaiser and Hitler, and the Soviet Union under Stalin. The beginnings of the creation of a European Common Market in the 1950s all hugely affected this country long before the UK ofﬁcially joined what became the EU in 1973. Moreover, the adoption of the Euro by many of the other countries of the EU has affected the UK notwithstanding that the UK has not adopted it.
It is obvious that what goes on in mainland Europe affects us militarily, environmentally, economically, in the intellectual domain and indeed spiritually. Sometimes this inﬂuence has been beneﬁcial, sometimes not. That was so before the EU was established and will continue to be so whether the UK remains within the EU or votes to leave. It is the result of geography. It is therefore in everyone’s interest that the whole of Europe ﬂourishes and that we each consider the other as “one of us”.
One of the depressing facts of the Referendum debate in this country has been its total self-centredness. The debate so far has been focused on trying to produce an answer to the question ‘what is best for the UK in particular areas?’ rather than the question ‘what is best for Europe as a whole in the long term?’. Each question deserves separate consideration even if, as I think, the answer to both is much the same in relation to the Referendum Question.
Self-centredness is by no means a purely UK phenomenon – President de Gaulle had precisely the same self-centred view. This is in complete contradiction to the approach of the founders of the European Communities, which was to establish a political system whose nature was such that it focused on the question “How can we best achieve what is in the common interest?” rather than on the question “How many of my national priorities this year can I compel the others to adopt?”. They thought, as I think, that it is better to work together to solve our problems rather than each of us try and solve our own by ourselves.
Personal self-centredness seems natural and is widespread in practice, if not widely approved of in ethical theory. National self-centredness is also understandable. The emphasis in this country on Parliamentary sovereignty is fuelled by the understandable desire of Parliamentarians to emphasise their own importance. Parliamentarians in each of our countries seek to persuade their electorates that they can satisfy their voters’ immediate aspirations. It is difﬁcult to change people’s instinctive desires – it is easier instead to adopt their aspirations as your aim.
Over time, the politician will of course realise that the vast majority of signiﬁcant happenings which affect his electorate in the long term will be the result of matters totally beyond the control of the national legislature, let alone his personal control. However, making it known that you are actually pretty helpless would be an unappealing platform on which to campaign for election. So naturally politicians are tempted to give the impression that they are individually and collectively in a position to secure for us all we wish for – and that within the lifespan of the next Parliament. Many yield to that temptation. However that impression is false.
The smaller the polity, the more it is inﬂuenced by matters outside its control. But even the largest States or Unions have to accept that they are not sovereign in the sense of being sole masters of their fate. As the memoirs of the political élite make plain, politicians actually in government often ﬁnd that in practice they do not have the power at a national level to achieve what they wish to achieve. This is why elected governments in all European countries tend to think that they will achieve more of their desires through working together with politicians from other countries. This has given rise to the fact, often remarked on, that the political élite in many European countries is often at odds with signiﬁcant parts of the electorate, who take a much more extensive view of the power of governments than the members of those governments know themselves to have. Those in charge know their own limitations better.
I hope that in the debate which faces this country, leaders will be found who express a broader view of what we need to achieve over the coming decades and how we can best inﬂuence for the good our neighbours who have inﬂuence over us. We can not avoid them having inﬂuence. We all accept now that brute force is no longer a practicable way of negating the inﬂuence of others. Leaders should try and persuade the electorate that the best way ahead is to have some inﬂuence on the policies pursued in mainland Europe and Ireland so that the activities of others will beneﬁt rather than harm us. It would also be desirable if helping other people – such as those subject to the Soviet yoke for years and the refugees from Syria – were regarded as a good thing rather than something which ought to be avoided.
We must surely work together rather than against one another. Of course the desires of one will from time to time be incompatible with the desires of another and in the nature of things only one party can then prevail. The strength of the EU should be that the system provides a mechanism whereby a long view can be taken and whereby these conﬂicts can in part be resolved by routine horse trading over a period of time.
It would be good to have a Parliamentary debate, after the conclusion of the negotiations but before the Referendum, in which views can be developed by people who have some experience of decision making. After all, not many of us have had experience of trying to govern and we are surely entitled to have the majority view of those with greater experience such as parliamentarians. We may not agree with that view but we should know what it is so that we can consider our decision in the light of that view. The debate will no doubt reveal differences of view within some parties, but that does not matter. As many on both sides of the debate have already pointed out, there is a danger that we shall not look at the larger, long term, future but will instead concentrate on whatever relatively minor and short term issues currently dominate public debate. This danger should be avoided. We must, so far as possible, concentrate on the whole future of this country and of mainland Europe and Ireland.
It would surely be helpful for the electorate to know what the collective opinion of Parliament is on the important long-term question of whether we stay in the EU or leave.
Sir Konrad Schiemann is a former Judge at the European Court of Justice from 2004 to 2012, nominated by the UK.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.