Former Ambassador to Norway and policy advisor to the vice-chancellor, David Powell, shares his views on why leaving the European Union would be a serious strategic and security error.
The most important issues for me, as a former diplomat, are around security, stability and influence.
Our precise security challenges are of course always changing in the detail. But given our geography and history, there are some broader imperatives that have been followed by successive British Governments:
- Ensure that we can influence the international landscape, in terms both of direct security challenges and also the international rules or norms that will affect our country. We rely on a rules-based international system, so having a voice in setting those rules is vitally important.
- Seek to preserve stability in our neighbourhood. This is why we have supported interlocking networks and norms to reduce or contain the risks of conflict in Europe – and which is why we were instrumental both in setting up NATO and in giving the EU a defence dimension.
- Prevent a single nation or group of nations forming a power block on continental Europe. The EU is far and away the most powerful and influential grouping in our region. Leaving it won’t make it go away.
All these objectives would be weakened if we were to leave the EU.
We would no longer have a leading role in crafting European Union foreign policy and in the broader European response to international crises – my experience in Oslo showed me the difficulties the Norwegians sometimes had in making their voice heard on European foreign policy issues. We would no longer be able to play a pivotal role in ensuring NATO and the EU work together as effectively as possible. Indeed, with all our NATO allies wanting us to remain in the EU it is inconceivable that our voice even in NATO would be as strong after Brexit. Senior military commanders have warned about weakening NATO. We have responsibilities to our allies as well as to ourselves.
Leaving the EU would substantially weaken our ability to influence the preservation of stability and security in our neighbourhood. This to me is a vital national interest. There is a good deal of history on this continent. One of the huge achievements of the European Union has been to provide a framework within which disputes can be more easily managed (not least in Northern Ireland). Issues that might previously have become inflamed can be handled in boring committee rooms in Brussels. But as the immigration crisis has shown, cooperation is fragile. National differences are still very much alive.
Removal of the UK voice will both place a further strain on European institutions and at the same time reduce our own influence on events. We would convert a powerful group of nations from a (broadly) friendly club of which we are a member, into a bloc capable of acting collectively against our interests should they choose to do so.
There is a further consideration, which is that just as no man is an island, so too is no one nation or group of nations. Maintenance of international peace and security requires concerted coordination. The EU is increasingly a key actor. Its implementation of policies may not always be as effective as it ought to be but its objectives are largely those to which we subscribe: the norms of human rights and the rule of law. A weakened EU would reduce the salience of European values on the world stage.
As a Permanent Member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom has a primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The world is facing a greater set of risks than it has faced for some time. I find it difficult to understand how Brexit will make responding to any of them any easier or will make the world a safer place.
There is, finally, the more positive vision for the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. In working together EU member states have sought to emphasise a culture of cooperation and consensus as against one of confrontation and competition. This seems to be a not unreasonable approach to international relations. We are seeing tentative steps in similar directions in many other regions of the world. And although Europe’s share of global wealth is set to decline, as the rest of the world grows more numerous and richer, the member states of the European Union collectively still command formidable resources and wield enormous influence. The UK has long sought to influence global rules, norms and frameworks. We need to ask ourselves whether we will be better able to do so on our own or as part of this larger community of nations.