What would Churchill do?

For all the political motives behind his decision to back the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson shows what the Brexit debate should have actually focused on.

Boris Johnson’s decision to break ranks with David Cameron and advocate the British public vote to leave the European Union, undoubtedly the most eye-catching moment so far of the Brexit referendum campaign, has mainly been analysed through the prism of personal ambition – and probably rightly so.

In his Telegraph column with which he explained his decision earlier this week, the London Mayor described his vision of the UK’s relationship with the EU by referring to Churchill’s own words: “interested, associated, but not absorbed; with Europe – but not comprised”.

Surely this is an attempt by the Churchill admirer and biographer to take up the great statesman’s mantle in his thinly veiled bid for the Conservative Leadership. Yet the reference is also used to support an intellectually powerful argumentation distilled throughout the column, that can be summed up as follows:

1. The project of European integration was born in the late 1940s based on the notion that rebuilding continental Europe and protecting it from the perils of nationalism required the development of federal, supranational political institutions. Although this vision was noble and entirely legitimate, Britain’s democratic and national interest, as Churchill recognised at the time, lay in supporting these efforts from the outside while continuing to engage independently on the global stage, not least through its empire.

2. Things changed when it became clear, from the 1960s onwards, that the European project had turned into the more limited ambition of establishing a “Common Market” based on trade and on the preservation of national political sovereignty. On these terms, and despite the occasional regulatory overreach (“euro-condoms”, really?), it made sense for Britain to be part of the club.

3. But things changed again in the 1990s, when the reunification of Germany and the creation of the Euro set in motion a new drive towards political integration. The EU is slowly but surely moving back towards its original design. A design which, as Churchill saw it, Britain’s role is not to be a part of but to cooperate with through a wholly re-defined relationship.

Predictably for a political manifesto of this sort, Boris’s column is full of blatantly disingenuous remarks. While the EU regulations he vehemently criticised as a Brussels-based reporter in the 1980s are now described as “comical” aspects of an altogether acceptable relationship, similar actions today are said to constitute a “slow and invisible process of legal colonisation” and an intolerable interference with British sovereignty.

The gradual extension of EU powers through the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon seems to have been decided, when you read Boris, without the UK’s consent. And the extent to which the EU now curtails British national sovereignty makes you wonder whether he hasn’t forgotten (or wants voters to forget) that the UK is not part of the Euro or Schengen.

But Boris does make one fundamentally valid point: in a Union where a majority of member states are part of a currency union that is likely to a) further integrate politically and b) further extend geographically, the institutional centre of gravity will shift from the EU-28 to the Eurozone. This indeed calls for a comprehensive review of the relationship between the Euro-ins and the Euro-outs. There is a reason why this relationship, in particular with regards to the single market for financial services, was by far the most important element of the Brexit negotiations on both sides of the English Channel.

Despite the clarification (or further complexities) that last week’s deal brought with regards to financial supervision and the principle of “non-discrimination” between European currencies, the deal falls far short of the grand bargain that is needed.

One major reason for this is that the Eurozone itself is far from consolidated. Just imagine the introduction of proper “own resources” (taxes) that would be allocated to a specific Eurozone budget: this would require reopening the EU treaties to allow the EU institutions to function in a “Eurozone” format… and in the same movement call for a redefinition of the relationship between the Eurozone and the Euro-outs, potentially paving the way, as more and more British commentators seem to believe, for another UK referendum.

One potential solution some experts have advocated would be to re-set the EU institutional system by moving away from the current unified framework for all 28 member states, accompanied by a number of “à la carte” opt-outs and exemptions for specific countries, towards a system in which each member state would be given the choice between two distinct levels of integration accompanied by specific rights and obligations: a high level of political integration centred on the Eurozone and Schengen, and a lower level of economic integration centred on the broader single market.

Of course, a new UK referendum could end up being unnecessary should the Eurozone fall prey to the complacency of its political leaders and collapse before deepening its integration, but that is another matter… The bottom line is that despite his best efforts and the concessions he won, David Cameron was never going to secure a deal that stabilises the UK’s relationship with the EU for the long term when a comprehensive revision of the EU treaties was not on the cards. With this observation the London Mayor is undoubtedly right.

So what would Churchill do in the meantime? Would he heed Boris’s advice and leave (allegedly to strengthen the UK’s bargaining power for a re-renegotiation)? Or would he be swayed by business concerns over the impact of Brexit on the country’s economy?

It is hard to know for sure. But the late Prime Minister might have considered the UK’s national interest in the age of globalisation in light of the country’s ability or not to seal favourable trade deals with emerging economic giants on its own, without being part of the world’s largest trade block or at the helm of the largest empire in history.

What seems quite certain is that he would not have called this referendum in the first place.