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Garth Bray: Wake up, Europe still matters

opinion Garth Bray

By Garth Bray

Published: 10:23AM Thursday January 24, 2013 Source: ONE News

While you were sleeping, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron committed a future Tory government to holding a simple "in-out referendum" on UK membership of the European Union.

I'll excuse you if you snoozed through it but this really is a wake-up call for New Zealand.

This is about more than an embattled right-of-centre politician trying to herd his own uppity MPs and shore up his chances of a second term, because anything the UK does in Europe has always had a profound effect in New Zealand.

Forty years ago this month, Britain joined the Common Market in Europe - booting us out of a cosy, somewhat servile, relationship where we didn't have to trade with anyone else because Mother England paid good money for our lambs.

It was partly pragmatism - those lambs are tasty - and partly recognition of the frightful human sacrifice New Zealand had made to defend the British Isles in two World Wars. Like I said, anything the UK does in Europe has always had a profound effect in New Zealand.

I'm reliably informed that the UK has long been the go-to ally in Brussels if New Zealand needs a hand negotiating business-friendly terms for trade, fighting off the subsidies France and others throw at their farmers, or dealing with new banking rules that will set the standards for exporters around the globe, whether or not they are trading with the EU.

France's foreign minister unwittingly reveals as much. Think of the EU as a football club, says Laurent Fabius. Once you've joined up you cannot then say, "we want to play rugby". But Laurent, we do and so does Britain, sometimes. It's trite but it's true. The UK is the part of the EU naturally easier for New Zealand to deal with.

That's become increasingly less useful since David Cameron used his EU veto to keep the UK out of a deal just over a year ago that would have imposed less favourable terms on London's all-important capital markets. Bluntly the UK has less clout with European partners, its advocacy may be more of a liability in future and the in-out speech has only rubbed Europeans harder, up the wrong way.

Ahead of the speech the Obama administration said it plainly - it sees the US 'special relationship' with the UK as a little less special without the Brits pushing their pro-free trade, outward-looking perspective at the table in Brussels.

Our government probably can't afford to be so blunt but the stakes may be higher. At the very least we'll need to learn a lesson we probably should have taken forty years ago.

Just as we can no longer rely on Mother England to buy all our lambs, nor can we rely on Big Brother Britain to help us fight our battles in trade and diplomacy.

So we'll need to learn how to make some new friends.

A century after World War One, that could put New Zealanders back in the metaphorical trenches on the Western Front, but learning how to bunk down and soldier on with Swedes, Belgians and the Dutch - unless we too honestly think we can turn our backs on Europe.

Follow ONE News Europe Correspondent Garth Bray on Twitter.