I want to say at the outset that it has always seemed obvious to me that we are most safe when we are surrounded by friends, as we are now, and so why would we want to fall out with them?
Last year, in one of a collection of essays on the EU published in the RUSI Journal, Nick Witney predicted that ‘the upcoming referendum will not help sensible thinking about defence.’
As if to prove that point, a couple of weeks ago the Times carried the front page headline: ‘EU army plans kept secret from voters’.
Like so much about the Leave campaign, the headline bore little resemblance to reality.
The supposed ‘secret plan’ was actually a draft discussion paper which contained a number of proposals aimed at making it easier for EU members to co-operate on defence issues on a voluntary basis.
A spokesman for the document’s author, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, told the Times that the proposals ‘in no way aim to set up an EU army’.
Nevertheless, the headline ran.
There have always been Eurosceptics who genuinely seemed to believe that those diabolical Brussels bureaucrats were secretly plotting to build up a continental army as part of their emerging superstate.
But it is as true as saying that Elvis lives.
And there are others who ought to know better, who have been only too ready to exploit these kinds of manufactured controversies to try to paint a picture of the EU as being either a threat to our security, or at the very least irrelevant to it, particularly in comparison to NATO.
But the facts just keep getting in the way.
So let’s start with the suggestion that the EU has no role when it comes to security, because the collective defence of Europe is guaranteed by NATO.
Now it is true that NATO remains our most important military alliance, as it has been ever since its creation.
But to suggest that security is only about the military is to completely misunderstand the modern world.
There’s been much discussion throughout the referendum campaign of the EU’s role in tackling threats like terrorism and cross-border organised crime, for example.
With thousands of Europeans, including hundreds of UK nationals, having fought with Daesh in the Middle East, keeping track of the threat posed by those who return is one of the most urgent priorities we face today.
We can shut off our border, and put up fences, but this problem will not just go away.
And that’s before we even get to the practical question of where our borders would actually be.
It is precisely because of this issue that the US permanent representative to NATO, Doug Lute, told me when I visited Brussels that if the UK were to ‘pull up the drawbridge and stay inside fortress NATO’, it wouldn’t be enough to keep us safe in the twenty-first century.
On cross-border threats, from terrorism and cyber crime to money-laundering and human-trafficking, the value of EU institutions should by now be self-evident.
To recap just a few:
There’s Europol, which tracks suspected and convicted criminals and terrorists, and co-ordinates law enforcement;
Eurojust, which means that evidence gathered in investigations across the EU can be used to secure convictions in UK courts;
The European Arrest Warrant, which ensures the prompt extradition of criminals, with the famous example of the failed 21 July bomber who was extradited from Italy in just eight weeks;
And the Schengen Information System, which gives our agencies access to shared intelligence despite our not being part of the Schengen area – a very British case of both having our cake and eating it.
Considering that the rhetoric of the Leave campaign places such heavy emphasis on issues of sovereignty, it is worth remembering the value of these arrangements to our national police and intelligence services.
The Brexiteers are aware of these concerns, although they tend to brush past them.
In many ways what I find most alarming is that, not only would they take us out of these systems, but they have also singularly failed to explain what might take their place.
On intelligence-sharing, for example, they insist that we would not lose out because of bilateral relationships – with the US in particular – and because of our place in the Five Eyes alliance.
But that fails to account for two things:
First, intelligence agencies elsewhere in Europe often provide unique insights to particular regions, such as North and West Africa, often based on deep historical ties which the UK does not share.
Second, our allies, including the United States, often attach considerable importance to our connections within Europe, particularly on intelligence issues.
In light of the uncertainties Brexit would cause – not to mention the years it could take to negotiate a needlessly complicated web of bilateral arrangements – the Leave campaign’s complacency on this issue does not indicate sound judgement.
As the EU finds itself tackling modern threats like global terrorism, so it has also shown its worth in tackling the threat posed by hostility to its east.
Not incidentally, given the 22 member states they have in common, dealing with Russian aggression remains a priority for the EU as well as for NATO.
And although the Brexiteers are unlikely to admit it, there are some areas where the EU is actually taking the lead.
If experience over the last decade or so has taught us anything, it’s that Russian tactics often pose a challenge precisely because of their ambiguity.
These hybrid or asymmetric tactics now form a core part of official military doctrine in Russia, where the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, has said that ‘the role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the force of weapons in their effectiveness’.
And so what organisation can our European NATO allies look to for help in the face of this non-military aggression?
NATO is not always the appropriate responder in these circumstances, but the EU often is.
For example, we all remember the so-called ‘gas wars’ when, in 2006 and 2009, countries in eastern Europe were faced with prolonged energy shortages in sub-zero temperatures after Russia turned off the taps.
And the threat of energy dependence still looms over much of eastern Europe.
The Lithuanian foreign minister recently said that energy has always been used ‘as a tool by Russia’ for ‘blackmailing’ and ‘leverage’.
The prime minister of Romania has gone even further, arguing that:
‘Energy is the most effective weapon today of the Russian Federation – much more effective than aircraft and tanks’.
Remember that both these countries are members of the EU as well as NATO.
But it is the EU that has a strategy for reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, and it is only the EU that has the means to do so.
Similarly, we see the use of another non-military weapon in the influential role of Russian state-backed media in shaping opinion among Russian-speaking minority communities across eastern Europe.
In Ukraine we saw, in 2014, how Russian military intervention was presented as a response to local unrest which itself had been systematically whipped up by a relentless, long-term propaganda offensive.
Today the Baltic states fear the same tactics, and it is the EU, not NATO, that is pushing back; by supporting independent media, training local journalists, and potentially even setting up a Russian-language channel of its own in order to challenge the Kremlin’s monopoly on information within these communities.
None of this, obviously, should be seen as detracting in any way from NATO’s role in responding to the Russian challenge.
The steps the alliance has taken to reinforce the Article Five guarantee, in part by providing a visible military presence in the Baltic region, have been vital in sending a strong message – both to allies and to potential aggressors – that demonstrates our ongoing commitment to collective security.
In combination with the economic sanctions imposed by the EU, this represented a show of European resolve which went further than many were expecting at the time; including, I suspect, within the Kremlin.
It has been said before, but let’s say it again:
If Britain wants to make Putin smile, we should vote to leave the EU.
The fact is that in the face of a major challenge from Russia, Europe was stronger because it didn’t have to choose between the EU and NATO.
It is a false choice, and it is certainly not one that we have to make.
NATO knows, as one official put it recently, ‘we only own part of the tool-box.’
One of the best examples of the different roles of the EU and NATO in protecting our security is in tackling Somali piracy.
We shouldn’t forget the scale of the threat posed by Somali piracy at its peak, five or six years ago, when the news was filled with reports of hijackings, hostage-taking, and even the abduction of tourists from nearby resorts.
Following a UN mandate for an international response, the British-led EU naval taskforce was the first on the scene.
It included the Finns and the Swedes, as well as non-NATO countries as far afield as China, Japan and Australia, some of which are far more willing to join EU operations than those led by NATO.
Since then the number of pirate attacks has fallen dramatically, and the maritime force has had a 100% success rate in safeguarding the UN vessels tasked with delivering humanitarian aid.
Crucial to the mission’s success has been its recognition of the need to tackle not just the threat of piracy itself, but the breakdown in governance which allowed it to thrive in the first place.
This breakdown was systemic, and in many cases institutions had to be built up from scratch.
At one point, for example, around 80% of the pirates arrested by the authorities couldn’t even be prosecuted, simply because there weren’t enough prosecutors.
And the small number the authorities did manage to prosecute often couldn’t be imprisoned, because there wasn’t enough prison space.
So while the maritime task force patrolled the seas, a civilian task force went to work training local police forces, coast guards, prosecutors and judges throughout the region.
At the same time, EU funding helped to build prison capacity in neighbouring states such as Kenya, and to pay the allowances of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia itself.
All of which serves to remind us of two things: that none of us has a monopoly on security, first of all; but also that when barriers are broken down, whether between civilian and military, or the EU and NATO, so much more can be achieved than any one of us could do alone.
There is a clear impetus in the direction of closer co-operation between the two organisations, as NATO’s Secretary General acknowledged recently when he said that a key priority for next month’s Warsaw Summit would be to ‘seek a new level of cooperation with the EU – to face common threats, and to ensure our common security.’
Discussions about how best to achieve this are likely to be a feature of EU-NATO relations for some time, and if we say we want one without the other, we run the risk of finding ourselves left out of the conversation altogether.
Before I finish I want to try, if I can, to change the tone of the debate about what this referendum really means for those who will decide its outcome.
Throughout the campaign, arguments on both sides have been presented in largely transactional terms, and the question we always seem to be trying to answer is, what can Europe can do for us?
But what if we were to pose a different question, asking instead – to adapt JFK – what we can do for Europe?
In all the cases I’ve talked about, and in others besides, Britain’s role has been a critical factor in determining the success of EU initiatives.
Maintaining sanctions against Russia, for example, has meant maintaining consensus between 28 national governments which almost always pull in different directions.
This was never going to be an easy task, but throughout 2015, British influence played a vital role in holding the line.
Without us, the possibility that Europe’s resolve against Russia could weaken should not be taken lightly by anyone.
I would also point out that the EU’s counter-piracy operations off Somalia might never have even been possible without British involvement.
Not only has the UK provided the command structures for the naval operation, based out of Joint Headquarters in Northwood, but our global network of relationships helped bring in some of the world’s most capable navies, as I’ve already mentioned, with Japan, for example, one of many countries beyond Europe’s borders which explicitly value our role as a ‘gateway to Europe’.
The success of such operations in future could not be taken for granted without committed and capable British leadership.
In the nuclear deal with Iran, which I haven’t mentioned so far, it was a British diplomat who spoke for the whole EU.
In media coverage of the negotiations, Cathy Ashton’s name wasn’t mentioned as often as it should have been.
But as anyone involved in the talks knew, her role was instrumental in securing a deal that has – for the time being at least – succeeded in removing one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear proliferation threats.
The Iran deal wasn’t Ashton’s only success as the EU’s foreign policy chief.
Another under-appreciated win came in 2014, when she made a historic breakthrough in bringing the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to the negotiating table, in a process that led to the normalisation of relations between the two countries after centuries of conflict.
Critically, in that case, it was the desire of those countries, at some point in the future, to apply for EU membership which served, throughout the process, as the key motivating factor driving both sides to reach a solution.
When people ask me why we should stay in the EU, I often point out that we’re in one of the safest corners of the world here, and that we’re surrounded by friends, and why would we change that?
Of course it’s easy for us to forget what membership of the EU often means to people in parts of the continent where wars have been fought, and dictators have been in power, in the not-too-distant past.
But the principle that led the states of western Europe to pull together for the first time, amid the rubble left behind after World War Two, is as relevant today as it has ever been.
We have always led the way in a post-war Europe built on the foundations of peace, security and shared prosperity.
Now, when much of Europe continues to look to us for leadership, is no time to throw in the towel.