Review: “The UK’s In-Out Referendum” by David Owen

June 21, 2016

Rather like the UK, Lord Owen’s pocket-sized book punches above its weight …

Vsevolod Samokhvalov

David (Lord) Owen’s recent book The UK’s In-Out Referendum is a timely one. Owen is ideally placed to look at the debate – if one can call it that – currently taking place across the nation, and bring the arguments into focus. He served as Foreign Secretary from 1977 until 1979, and later co-founded and went on to lead the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Between 1992-95 Lord Owen served as EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia, and he now sits as an Independent Social Democrat in the House of Lords.

As he sees it, there are three major concerns, which run through his pocket-sized book, and which Britain should have addressed long ago in the framework of London-Brussels renegotiations. But they were not. So they remain, and will constitute the challenge for the UK no matter whether it stays or leaves the EU.

Eurozone tension

First of all, he says, there is growing tension between the 19-member eurozone and the rest of the EU. It is highly likely that an emerging eurozone group within the EU will soon start voting en bloc. This would be no problem in itself, if eurozone member states stuck to the economic issue of a single market. But this is not going to be the case. No matter what is said by the Remain camp in the UK, further integration of the eurozone is inevitable. Owen quotes the IMF chief economist, to argue that the eurozone project is viable only with further cross-border financial integration, which is incompatible with fiscal independence. According to Owen, this dynamic will spread into all spheres of the EU, particularly in foreign and security policy. Eventually, it is very likely that eurozone member states will mirror the democratic procedures of a single country: give up the sanctity of unanimity, and increase the number of states needed for a blocking majority ­– all steps toward a United States of Europe. This United States of Europe, which has been a bogeyman for the majority of British politicians – Remainders or Brexiteers – is not a problem for Owen. The problem is that this emerging European super-state can be described as a failed superpower, having failed in the two ways, which constitute Owen’s second and third concerns.

Half-hearted policies

The stress fracture of all Europe’s troubles has been the half-hearted policies and lack of proper reflection about the design and ramifications of the EU institutions and, most importantly, its foreign and defence policies. Owen underpins his claim by highlighting the flawed design of the eurozone, and the inability of the European Central Bank, for example, to address the Greek crisis.

Looking at EU foreign and security policy, he points to Ukraine. The inflammatory wording of the agreement providing for Ukraine’s deeper integration into the framework of European security and military capability, becoming part of the European Defence Agency, were provocative for Russia. “It was surely not beyond the capacity of the EU External Affairs Secretariat to warn their boss, the High Representative, that the Commission, in drawing up the Association Agreement with Ukraine risked a serious confrontation with Russia. Furthermore, the EU mediation in the Ukrainian crisis was in fact another mistake stemming from this attitude of Brussels. There seemed to be no reflections, consultations and decision-making about who should represent Europe in this peace effort. Eventually, EU High Representative for Foreign Security Policy Catherine Ashton asked Polish Foreign Minister R. Sikorski to mediate, but it was an inflammatory choice. As a result, the EU was seen complicit in making President V. Yanukovych flee, and its credibility and authority was shredded overnight. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and waging war in Eastern Ukraine. And at this stage, Europe’s mediation efforts were being made by German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande. Britain chose not to participate or was omitted.” It is this presence of France and the absence of Britain, which is the third major concern of Owen’s booklet.

French Megalomania

Referring to the famous St Malo Declaration of 1998 when British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac announced their plans to create a separate EU military planning and capabilities, Owen quotes a response by President’s Clinton’s former Head of the CIA James Woolsey: “The one and only that the United States asked of our European friends was not to establish a separate and independent planning capability. And this is precisely what they did.” Even though British politicians tried to offset some of the excesses of continental European politics, the growing anti-Atlanticist trend in Europe will inevitably result in a US reluctance to commit itself to European security. As Owen sees it, if in 2016, the Americans would still be ready to keep troops as allies on the ground in Europe, were the developing eurozone integration to lead to the French interpretation of autonomy, then it will not just be a US president, but senators and congressmen and the professional servicemen in the Pentagon, who will judge it incompatible with upholding their national interest, for America to be retaining its troops in Europe. This potential departure of the US could be very dangerous in view of the persistent failure of Europeans to create their own military capabilities or even to increase their budget spending to the 2% level of GDP required by their supposed commitment to NATO.

Which brings Owen to a decision: if the three above trends persist, and if Cameron’s re-negotiation is but window-dressing and a disguised status-quo, then the British people should vote for leaving the UK.

This is a book full of surprises, not the least of which is the discussion of policy choices available to an apparently future Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn; and Owen’s recommendations for him. Owen suggests a gradual scaling down of nuclear forces, a peace plan for Ukraine and the Middle East, and re-engagement with Turkey and Russia as a way to maintain British security. Trying to pre-empt any accusations of excessive Antlanticism, Owen comes back to Kagan’s long-standing proposition that Europeans are from Venus and Americans are from Mars. True enough, the European Union has gone farther down the pacifist road than the US … But America’s sporadic, erratic, and largely ineffective deployment of power is hardly of Martian quality.

Britain and Russia

Owen’s book, however, reveals very serious gaps in understanding the nature of the relationship between Britain and Russia. This gap is generated by a fundamental cognitive difference stemming from the two countries attitude to Europe. While Britain has always seen Europe as an imperfect version of itself, and struggled to dissociate itself from this negative “Other,” Russia has more often had Europe as its positive “Other,” and strived to find ways to reunify itself with this Europe. When this did not happen, Russia could always point to some malicious forces, which prevented the longed-for reunion.

While Owen says that Britain missed the chance to shape EU foreign policy, one of Russia’s pro-government media outlets, Sputnik, argues that the EU’s confrontational tone towards Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, for example, is in fact a result of the EU’s irrational deference to the US, which can be put down to Britain’s ardent Atlanticist affiliation. For what the Americans and British call the “special relationship” is really this: “successive British governments acts as Washington’s stalking horse in Europe.” While Owen argues that Britain did not push for a proper discussion and reflection on the question of Europe’s independent defence standing, Russia claims that London has been undermining independent-minded Europeans. And while Owen claims that Europe has not properly considered the consequences of its actions in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Russia argues it was Britain that has eagerly pushed for its expansion into Eastern Europe, with bogus jingoistic claims that Russia poses an existential threat.

Owen criticises Merkel and Hollande for hijacking the European project. Sputnik says that European leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande have shown an odious servility towards Washington in relation to Russia. The implication is clear: Europe needs to grow a political backbone.

This, of course, is the mirror image of the Brexit debate, viewed from Europe: that Europe would be a far more progressive and constructive, independent power were it not for Britain’s always dragging it back into a reactionary, pro-Washington fold.

Lord Owen does more in 55 pages than acres of newsprint and hours of TV debates. He frames the Brexit debate in a European context, positing the idea that carping old Britain, by leaving, may actually do Europe a favour, in that it will precipitate a proper reconstruction of the EU – one that is independent in foreign relations, and not just a lapdog to Washington. Where that leaves the UK, however, is anybody’s guess.

The UK’s In-Out Referendum by David Owen
Haus Publishing
54 pp


Vsevolod Samokhvalov is Research Associate with the Centre for Development Studies and Cambridge Central Asia Forum at Cambridge University, where he works on the interaction between the European and Eurasian projects. He has written extensively on political developments in the post-Soviet space, Russia-EU relations in the Balkans and the Black Sea region. His most recent book (co-editor) is The Eurasian Project and Europe: Geopolitics and Regional Discontinuities (Palgrave 2015).

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