Britain and the European Union
LONDON EYE - Stephen Lillie (The Philippine Star) - February 14, 2013 - 12:00am

Many readers will be aware that Prime Minister David Cameron recently delivered a speech on Britain’s relationship with the EU. It was a very important speech, about one of Britain’s most important relationships. But talking to people around town, I’m not sure all the messages have been accurately understood here. Britain is not about to leave the EU.

Before recapping what the Prime Minister did say, I will take the opportunity to address a couple of broader misunderstandings about Britain and Europe that I often hear in Manila. Quite a few people I talk to don’t think we are about to leave; they don’t even think we are part of the Union now! The reality though is that the UK is a long-standing member of the EU — and one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget.

Britain joined the EU in 1973 when it was called the European Economic Community, or EEC. Britain, Ireland and Denmark brought the then number of members to 12. That number has more than doubled since, and membership now stands at 27. We are not members of the Euro — but that in itself is not remarkable. Seventeen EU members are part of the Eurozone, and 10 are not. We are also not part of the Schengen visa area, having chosen to retain our border controls. The same applies for the Republic of Ireland. For the connoisseurs, Schengen actually includes four countries who are not EU members: Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. All this illustrates the diversity of Europe, but does not alter the reality that the UK is a fully paid-up member of the EU.

Whatever you may read or hear in the media, the Prime Minister’s speech on 23 January was a very clear commitment to keeping the UK in the EU, at the heart of the European Single Market, but also leading EU action on energy, climate change, development, foreign policy and other global challenges. But it was also an honest assessment of the challenges that all of us in Europe face. These include the challenges of the Eurozone crisis (which affect Euro members and non-members alike), the challenge of competitiveness in a transformed global economy, and the issue of democratic accountability in the EU and ensuring that EU funding is kept at appropriate levels. David Cameron spoke frankly on all these issues, and set out his own principles for reform in Europe, to help shape the future of an open, flexible and adaptable European Union.

So what about that referendum? Students of British political history will know that we have only ever held two nationwide referenda in the UK, the first of which was on EEC membership in 1975. In his speech the Prime Minister made clear that, as leader of the Conservative Party, he will seek a mandate at the UK 2015 general election to negotiate a new EU settlement, and then hold a referendum with a choice between staying in the EU on the new terms, or exit. Read the speech, and you will see that the Prime Minister is confident that he will be able to negotiate the right reforms and win that referendum. As he said at the end of it, he believes very deeply that Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union — and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it.

(Stephen Lillie is the British Ambassador to the Philippines)


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