50 Years of the EUUnity in diversity: A British view [Archives:2007/1049/Opinion]

May 10 2007

By: Michael Gifford
The diversity of the European Union has always been one of its strengths. The different national contributions that the various member states bring make the EU an incredibly exciting place in which to live and work. But we need unity of purpose as well if the EU is to live up to its promise to its own citizens and to meet the expectations of millions of others around the world that the EU will be a force for good in today's globalized and inter-connected world.

The UK has always advocated a practical agenda for Europe, one which brings real benefits to all Europeans. These benefits range from the big gains of stability and prosperity to more tangible issues – cheap flights and clean beaches. But both share one impulse – to make people's daily lives safer, easier and more prosperous. This is what Britain has always sought from its EU membership: a Europe that listens to the concerns of its people and introduces practical measures to make life better.

Our EU philosophy was set out by Tony Blair back in 1999. “We are pragmatic visionaries, rather than utopians”. There is a long tradition of British pragmatism towards Europe. Back in 1971, when we were negotiating our membership, one of the EU's founders, Jean Monnet, supported UK accession because he considered that the rest of Europe could count on us “to make things work”. There are two areas in which the UK has wanted to make this work: the single market and enlargement. We have given these policies our enthusiastic support because they have delivered what we considered important, practical benefits for all Europeans. And, as we look ahead to the next 50 years, they are an example of the strong, outward looking EU policies we want to see in the future.

We want policies like the single market, which has played a key role in driving European prosperity and delivering real benefits to European consumers. We support legislation which bring us cheaper flights, four weeks paid holiday, labels on food that tell us what the packet really contains, cheaper phone calls and broadband access.

The European Commission has played a central role to deliver these policies – focused on results for the consumer. Back in the 1990s, the Commission challenged the power of state monopolies across Europe. Creating single markets in telecommunications and airline sectors has brought down our household bills.

Of course not all EU laws are as successful. This is why, at the European Council in March 2007, we pushed for action to remove some of the red tape and redundant laws, which hold back business and frustrate individuals. Part of our continuing quest for a single market which improves the lives of Europeans.

The entry of eight new central and eastern European countries after the collapse of communism is perhaps Europe's greatest achievement. The UK has consistently supported EU enlargement. This has spread stability and prosperity across the whole European continent.

Today, Europeans can live, work, and study right across the EU. European businesses have new markets to exploit and European consumers benefit from living in the world's largest single market.

The case for further enlargement remains strong. The prospect of EU membership leads to reform and rejuvenation in our wider neighbourhood. This makes us all more secure, not just from the threat of war, but increasingly from new threats, like organised crime, terrorism and climate change. The UK particularly welcomes the prospect of accession by Turkey, a country which will increase the EU's diversity and effectiveness in many ways. The alternative of pulling back from enlargement and creating a new dividing line across Europe risks a return to the instability and fear of the past.

When we look at the EU's first fifty years, we see that the EU has worked most successfully when it has adopted policies based on the need to deliver results – tangible benefits – for Europe. In its first fifty years, the EU has created the most powerful free trade zone in the world and re-drawn the map of Europe. These are extraordinary successes.

A Yemeni reader may be asking at this point, 'so what – what have the EU's past success got to do with me?' The answer, I think, lies in the fact that many of the issues we grappled with all those years ago as Europe emerged from conflict, economic depression and misrule are very relevant to the problems and challenges facing Yemen today – how to remove barriers to investment, how to move on from a period where war and conflict are the norm to one where the prosperity and security of individual citizens are paramount; how to reform political structures and processes to make them more representative; how to use a nation's human and natural resources for the good of the people rather than the benefit of the few – and so on. There are many other examples.

The world has of course changed out of all recognition over the past 50 years, and mostly, I believe, for the better. But the challenges we face now are global – climate change, terrorism, migration. The UK led the voices calling for European action on climate change because we know that we can achieve more by working with our 26 EU partners than we could alone. In the next fifty years, the EU should learn from its successes and see that it works best when its policies are driven by the need for practical benefits for Europeans. And it needs to keep looking outwards, to our immediate neighbourhood and further afield, including in the Middle East. If the six EU founder members had turned inward and concentrated on their coal and steel agreement, there would be little prospect that you would be reading this article on the successes of the EU's first fifty years.

Michael Gifford is the British Ambassador to Yemen