News that the British government is planning to withdraw from participation in EU meetings in the coming days is another ruse by Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson to “send a message to Europe” that the UK is leaving with or without a deal. Pulling out from day-to-day EU business in this way only serves to further diminish what remains of British influence. But such a reckless PR stunt will have minimal impact on the Brexit outcome. Brussels negotiators are waiting instead to see if members of the UK parliament can get their act together and stop a no-deal exit in September.
Meanwhile, however, I can see at first-hand how, step by step, Johnson is reducing the UK’s influence, making us less able to shape the policies that affect British people, from fisheries policies to the climate crisis.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The UK does not have to be a regional and global embarrassment. We do not have to face a future on the sidelines. We do not have to allow Brexiteers to claim the mantle of patriotism. For the moment they have the initiative and are selling the inevitability of Brexit, with the only question being whether the UK crashes out or leaves in an orderly fashion. The time is long overdue for remainers to seize the national flag and gain the higher ground.
Why have the Brexiteers been allowed for so long to portray themselves as heroic defenders of our national interest? By turning their back on the EU they are running away from the issues facing our continent, problems that every nation faces but which no one country can resolve alone. This is not heroism, it’s cowardice.
Europe’s climate problems are our problems and, with the UK emitting just 1% of global greenhouse emissions, only through a collective approach can we hope to have real influence in shaping global policy. Europe’s borders are our borders, at least where the mass movement of people is concerned, which is certainly likely over decades to come. Our security interests are shared, whether to fight terrorism or counter the less than benign influences of Russia and China.
The values of democracy, pluralism and the protection of minorities that are enshrined in the EU treaties risk being undermined from within by the “illiberal democracies” of Hungary and Poland. The UK should be at the heart of their defence.
Margaret Thatcher set out in her 1988 Bruges speech a position which all remainers today can endorse: “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.” Thatcher wouldn’t have tolerated Johnson’s withdrawal from European tables of influence. I suspect Winston Churchill would be horrified.
How might a transformation be brought about? If Brexit can be stopped, then the government of the day must change the language of debate, emphasising a newfound commitment to the EU and the mutual benefit to be gained from working together.
Of course, the fact that the UK has its own currency and is not within the Schengen area will limit its role on occasion, but a display of solidarity would help rebuild trust shattered by years of divorce talk. A practical step would be for British ministers to get to know their opposite numbers across Europe. In a Europe of 28 countries, ministers are constantly changing, so a commitment of time has to be made if relationships are to be fostered. Ministers need to reach out and put in that time.
Once back around the table as a serious player, the UK can take the most important step of all. It can table proposals for reforms intended to drive the EU forward and address the concerns of its citizens. We need not be ashamed of wanting to be citizens of a strong country that plays a leading role in the shaping of our continent. We can reject Little England while embracing the wish for a UK in Europe to be truly great. We should be leaders, not leavers.
• Chris Davies is a Liberal Democrat politician and MEP