David Cameron's long-awaited speech on Britain in Europe tomorrow will force him to make some hard choices that will affect the future of British influence on the continent. Will Britain aim to be a key player at the heart of the EU or a bit player on the margins? Will he show himself to be a slave to opinion polls and a sceptic press, or a statesman who knows his own mind and is prepared to argue the case for Britain's continued place in Europe?
The UK has been central in shaping the enlarged Union of 27 Member States that we have today and a vocal defender of the Single Market enabling goods, services, persons and capital to flow freely across internal borders to 500 million consumers. But the Single Market can only work if each member abides by a common set of rules, applied and enforced equally by everyone.
Cameron will not succeed if he attempts to hold his European partners to ransom, exchanging acquiescence to EU treaty change over the eurozone for a unilateral repatriation of powers. Moreover, the rest of the EU knows that stability and economic recovery in the eurozone is vital to the UK's own economic interests. Some have said Cameron is not going to get his way by pointing a gun at everyone else's head. I believe a more apt metaphor would be that of a madman, threatening to blow himself up unless he gets his own way.
One issue on which Cameron has been deliberately vague is what powers he seeks to repatriate. Social and employment law which sets minimum standards for annual leave, maternity, working hours or health and safety practices? Police and judicial cooperation which leading law enforcement figures have said are vital to the UK's national security? The Common Fisheries Policy, which is already currently undergoing major reform? Do the fish even know wherei international borders are anyway? The only thing Cameron will achieve by seeking to renegotiate terms of membership is that Britain will be left ostracised, resented and alone. And the failure to meet expectations back home for a repatriation of powers would risk sending the
UK hurtling towards the exit.
As British business leaders have been quick to point out, the economic consequences of such an exit would be disastrous. Almost half of the UK's exports go to the EU, while 87% of small business exporters and 3.5 million jobs rely on trade with the single market. The City of London currently handles 40% of global euro-denominated trade and would rapidly lose its position as Europe's pre-eminent financial centre. Foreign investment of the kind which has rekindled the British car industry would soon dry up as the UK would no longer be seen as a launch pad
into the single market. Furthermore, the UK would no longer be a party to the EU's free trade deals, and would have to renegotiate its entire trade policy from a position of weakness.
Any alternative arrangement, be it in EFTA or a separate associate membership, would leave the UK powerless to shape EU legislation while remaining strictly bound by it. Neither would be an enticing prospect for a nation that prides itself on global influence. As Britain's American allies have recently emphasised, exit from the EU would greatly diminish Britain's position on the world stage.
Some commentators have argued that the UK is in some way profoundly different from its European partners. But Britain is not the only country in the EU with a proud history, strong cultural identity, or former empire. The real difference in Britain has been the failure of politicians to make a positive case for Europe over the past two decades, and relentless bias and misreporting in a monopolistic and largely populist press driven by vested interests.
Britain's destiny, like its history, will always be inextricably bound with the rest of Europe. And in the past, Britain has never been a country to cut and run when the going gets tough. It has always stood and fought for its interests and principles in Europe, profoundly shaping the history of our continent. As a Belgian I know this only too well. It was Britain which organised the Treaty of London in 1839 under which European powers formally recognised the independence and neutrality of Belgium, and it was a British regiment which liberated Brussels in September 1944.
The challenges we now face in the 21st century may have changed - economic decline, an aging population, climate change, organised crime and terrorism - but they continue to be shared by countries across Europe. And in a globalised world these challenges cannot be solved by retreating into our nationalist shells. We must work together if we are to defend Europe's prosperity and way of life, in an era set to be dominated by economic superpowers such as India and China and the emergence of regional trade blocs such as ASEAN and MERCOSUR.
In fields as diverse as the single market, foreign policy, trade and enlargement, the UK has shown that it can play a leading role. Crucially, Britain's liberal instincts have helped ensure that the EU remains competitive, outward looking, and a force for peace and trade liberalisation throughout the world. It has achieved this not through blackmail, but by building alliances and pushing for EU-wide reform.
If Cameron fails to show leadership now and allows Britain to drift away from continental Europe, he will guarantee his place in the history books - but for all the wrong reasons.