The Grit in the Oyster: Britain’s relationship with the European Union

The Grit in the Oyster: Britain’s relationship with the European Union

The UK Government recently published the first of a two part rapid review of EU competencies which followed David Cameron’s January commitment to an ‘in-out’ referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership.

Reading the Summary Reports I was oddly reminded of a scene from the film The Last King of Scotland. Dr. Nicholas Garrigan a young Scottish doctor has found himself unwitting counsel to the Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin and is being asked why he didn’t advise him not to expel the Asian community from the country, with all the catastrophic consequences that followed. Garrigan responds by saying he did tell him, whereupon Amin bellows back to his face “Yes you did tell me, but you did not persuade me!”

Echoing such sentiments I can hear voters following a post exit referendum in 2015 lining up to tell news journalists ‘yes the Government told me about the benefits of continued EU membership, but they did not persuade me!’ Such a response would not be a surprise of course, given years upon years of negative press about make believe directives banning curvy bananas or the more real challenges of farming subsidies or fishing quotas. So while the UK government is slowly beginning to develop a more positive narrative around Britain’s continued membership, whether it will be enough to reassure a sceptical electorate prior to a referendum I have my doubts. Simply on a weight of evidence assessment it is going to take more to tip the balance than an oddly timed and structured government review coupled with the few wizened political grandees that have shown themselves willing to put their heads above the parapet to extol the virtues of Europe.

But it is not just making the case for Britain in Europe; it is also about having a clear vision as to the best role that Britain should play at the European table. The reality is that Britain has always been at its best being the ‘grit in the oyster’, with the late Margaret Thatcher one of the more successful proponents of such an approach. In the absence of such focus, Europe has found itself drifting into grand plans, which within the hands of administrators and policy makers produces programmes such as Europe 2020, which lacks both the vision and substance to capture the public’s imagination in post austerity times.

Yet with a British political mind set turning away from Europe to pastures new in India, Brazil and China, little time appears to be being given to reframing a role as critical friend in Brussels. Given that Europe is entering its twilight as a global power in the same way that Britain saw its economic power wane at the turn of the last century, acting as friend rather than foe could help both parties navigate a new path within an increasingly globalised world.