If Britain pulls out of the EU, that will be as much due to our condescending Eurozealots, who have called every turn wrong for 30 years, as to UKIP. Both alike tell us that radical change in the European structure is out of the question.
Moderate sceptics, who want to stay in the EU but might want “out” if the Government can’t negotiate a changed relationship, are the majority of the electorate, but their voice is too seldom heard. The BBC neglects them, presumably calculating that pitting Nigel Farage against Denis MacShane does more for its audience ratings than analysis of the most important issue facing the country.
Circumstances, however, have conspired to deliver our fate to the moderates. While the eurozone faces a polarised choice between economic union or break-up, Britain has three options: “more Europe”, exit or renegotiate. And since “more Europe” has become unthinkable, the effective option is exit or reform. In a word, the Europhiles have lost. The sceptics, however, have not yet won. For this, the coalition is to blame for its failure to articulate a constructive vision of a Europe that would meet the aims both of the integrationist countries and of those that put self-determination first.
Whether Britain withdraws or remains, it will have to negotiate terms with an EU that has lost its way after the triumphs of its first 50 years, when tariffs were cut, enemies reconciled and a haven given to victims of dictatorships. Its icon, the euro, has awakened resentments unknown since the Second World War. Unemployment in the South is at 1930s levels, with nothing but depression and endless financial chicanery in sight. The region has slid inexorably down the global economic league tables.
Brussels treats the catastrophe predictably as a pretext for “more Europe”, but Germany’s reaction, caught between the appeal of European solidarity and reluctance to be the milch cow for Mediterranean indiscipline, has been cautious and ambivalent. There is nothing in Berlin’s response to suggest a closed mind to a new deal with the countries outside the eurozone. They know that a British government that signed up to deeper economic integration wouldn’t last a week. They also read the polls, showing UKIP neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems. It is not in Germany’s interest to drive Britain to withdraw, depriving the EU of its financial centre, its principal advocate of democracy and free trade, and one of its two foremost military powers, not to mention its highly lucrative market.
Germany is ripe for change. After two thirds of a century’s atonement, it no longer has to disprove a wish for domination or to pretend that without uniformity there can be no peace in Europe. It can admit that the proudest European heritage - German music, Italian painting, French civilisation, English literature - is utterly removed from the integrationist obsessions of the European political class. Liberated from guilt, Germany begins to recognise again democracy’s ability to reconcile voters to political defeat, to repeal unworkable laws and dismiss bad leaders, and to tackle difficulties with the grain of national traditions, institutions and instincts, not by the imposition of one-size-fits-all European-level solutions.
The shape of a new Europe therefore writes its own script - a neighbourly alliance, partly federal, partly by treaty between independent states, in which those who want to share a currency and economic sovereignty and those who just want co-operation would be equally welcome. Only trade, the bedrock of the original Common Market, would be universal.
In truth, it is not the eurozone that is the “core” of Europe - it is the single market. In the new, flexible model for EU integration, the UK would remain a full member of the customs union and single market and maintain its vote on making Europe’s trading rules. But it could limit Brussels’ involvement in areas such as policing and crime, fisheries, farming, employment law and regional policy.
The EU’s institutions would be adapted so as not to discriminate against countries who have chosen to be less integrated. Likewise, the UK would not vote on EU laws that did not apply to itself. The presumption of travel towards a common destiny would cease to apply, since all forms of EU membership would be equally legitimate.
Instead of institutional tinkering and going round in circles on the euro, national democracies would start working out how to succeed in the globally networked modern world. Each country would find its own way back to prosperity. That, after all, was how Europe became rich and civilised in the first place. Relieved from unwanted legislation and desperate sacrifices for the euro, we would rediscover the amity of neighbours.
We might even find that a confederate EU had become a magnet for Norway and Switzerland. That would be a delicious irony - sceptical Britain bringing about a strengthening of Europe that has eluded the zealots.