The UK’s In-Out Referendum by David Owen

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The UK’s In-Out Referendum
EU Foreign and Defence Policy Reform
By David Owen
Haus Publishing, 2015, ISBN: 9781910376539

At last, a grown-up book about the issue of the moment. David Owen’s booklet was written before David Cameron had completed his renegotiation, so-called, of Britain’s EU membership. Since then Owen has come out in favour of leaving the EU, a clear indication that he doesn’t believe the prime minister has got a good enough deal. His book suggests various structural changes that would likely make Europe more effective and workable, with the particular focus being on defence. There is a concern that the EU is aiming to take on NATO’s role (a story in The Times on 27 May 2016, ‘EU army plans kept secret from voters’, perhaps illustrates what Owen is alluding to) and that, when push comes to shove, a ‘European rapid reaction force’, the name of the proposed replacement, won’t be able to deliver. Won’t be able to deliver here as in so many other areas of policy: whatever happened to the Frontex border force that was supposed to  control the EU’s external borders?

A word that recurs quite a bit in the book when Owen describes the EU is ‘pretension’. His frustration is evident everywhere. This is a hapless, meddlesome institution that is chockful of liberal ideals and humanitarian rhetoric, which is all very well, but it badly needs a reality check. It has to acquire a baseline level of competence. It must learn to descend into the poverty of experience.

Yet it does not follow from Owen’s appraisal, unfortunately, that Britain would be better off leaving, for  the EU is a danger not only to itself and to its member states but to neighbouring states as well: Ukraine being a case in point. Geopolitics dictates that we will always have a concern with what the EU is up to. Perhaps we would be better off in the EU where we can keep an eye on it, veto its idiot schemes and in general stop it from doing something stupid.

When it comes to Brexit, Owen’s  judgement is salutary but unbowed:

But it is dangerous to choose this course [Brexit] unless it is accompanied by a new national spirit of endeavour built on realism, a recognition that we are taking a rigorous not a relaxed choice, that we are embarking on a global mission and will no longer be cushioned within Europe. We have not resolved our own economic problems yet  and there are difficulties ahead of us, but it is a fact of which we can be proud that the UK has met its UN and NATO targets – spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on foreign aid and 2 per cent on defence. To pretend that this country is too weak politically, economically and militarily to vote to leave the EU is absurd and deserves to be laughed out of court.

A sound judgement and, as you read it, you realise how ill-served and impoverished the public debate on the EU referendum has been thus far.

Immigration, at the centre of the debate in recent days, is mentioned briefly. Owen makes the interesting point that the free movement of people and labour ‘is not a necessity for the effective working of the Single Market’. I have not heard this view expressed by either the Remain or the Leave camp – should I be surprised about this? At any rate, the perverse policy of deporting non-EU workers in skilled professions – teachers, nurses, etc. – just to keep the net migration figure down (see ‘The non-EU workers who’ll be deported for earning less than £35,000’) cannot be the answer to potentially unlimited EU migration. We need to keep skilled migrant workers in the UK and encourage them to come. Perhaps Olaf Scholz’s proposal, set out in his talk at the LSE earlier in the year, has merit (see ‘EU may have to limit migrant benefits like UK, says Hamburg mayor’). Count on it: if EU migration becomes a problem for Germany you can bet that an EU-wide solution will be found.

Not long to go now!

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at He blogs at: