The Diplomatic Value of the EU – Why the current debate on British EU membership misses the mark

By Beth O’Brien

For a snowy week in January, current affairs enthusiasts have been spoilt for big news stories. A hostage crisis in Algeria, Hillary Clinton testifying on Benghazi, North Korea threatening “a new confrontation with the US”, and a declaration from David Cameron that a re-elected Conservative government will hold an in-out referendum on European Union membership.

Debate about EU membership invariably centres around the economic. Should we follow the working time directive? What about the Euro? However, I submit that these discussions are all but irrelevant. The European Union represents much more than purely an integrated market. The diplomatic value of the European Union cannot be understated. To leave the EU now would be a gross oversight by the government of the United Kingdom, and so the current concerns about economic cost of membership should be sidelined.

All of the news stories I mentioned above had a decidedly international flavour, and they all relate to something that could impact the UK in some way. The 21st century presents its own challenges that we are yet to fully understand. There are established non-state threats, such as Al Qaeda and associated groups. However, there are also state-based threats to international security. Over the last week, North Korea has declared its intention to violate UN Security Council requests to cease testing rockets. According to state television, these rockets are designed to be used to attack the US in the near future. Also this week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party was returned to power, albeit only just. Netanyahu declared his priority to be the prevention of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. It is clear then, that there is a complex list of possible threats to domestic security.

Membership of the European Union offers the UK another outlet to participate diplomatically on security issues. Particularly in relation to the Middle East, Europe is in an important geopolitical position. A unified, strong position and shared policy from the EU will allow a more effective combating of potential threats. Indeed, the European Union website states “acting together as the EU, the 27 member countries have far greater weight and influence than if they act individually, following 27 different policies.” Non-participation in this matter not only drastically reduces the weight of influence we as a nation have, but may also weaken the position of the EU. For what is a unified European viewpoint without one of its most prosperous nations?

“But isn’t that what NATO’s for”, I hear the Eurosceptics cry. Granted, NATO does represent an invaluable web of allies for the UK, and given it is a military alliance, can deter potential threats from acting at all. My argument in response to this is twofold. Firstly, the EU includes a number of states that are not in NATO, and so a unified position from both the EU and NATO would have greater coverage. This is especially important when we consider the potential influence of ex-Soviet Union nations. A unified position that may, in some respects, cross cultural boundaries, may have more influence than a purely ‘Anglo-American’ statement. Secondly, the European Union is not a military alliance. Diplomatically, this can appear to be less ‘confrontational’ than threats from NATO.

Regardless, I believe the more avenues we have to present our own specialised security needs, the better. Membership of the EU creates an environment for us to liaise with the other major European powers without the influence of America. To lose this capacity for influence would be to seriously damage our own security interests in the future.

As an aside, it may be relevant here to mention that we were only at war with some of the nations of Europe 70 years ago. To say that this is not relevant is, in my opinion, to come from the false assumption that war between modern European states is a theoretical impossibility. Before World War I began in 1914, we existed in “splendid isolation” from mainland Europe, choosing only to enter into military alliances to prevent a hegemon emerging on the mainland and threatening British sea trade with the Empire. Before World War II, Hitler (yes, I am Godwin-ing this) admired Britain and her society, openly considering the possibility of a formal alliance. Of course, I am not saying if we leave the EU we will war with mainland Europe, nor will membership permanently prevent a possible altercation. However, we cannot foresee what challenges the rest of this century and beyond will bring. Distancing ourselves from our European allies would be foolish, no matter the economic implications.

Our relationship with our allies within the confines of the EU is worthy of debate. Membership as a whole, I would argue, is not. If the referendum does come round, I hope campaigners will consider other factors outside the economic, and see the EU for what it really is – a mechanism for cooperation and alliance in an increasingly unstable world.

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