Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
For the moment, it does seem like the EU has lost Britain—or rather, the other way round. Because under British Prime Minister David Cameron, the UK’s “special relationship” with the EU has become much more strained: witness Britain’s refusal to sign the European fiscal compact introduced in 2012 after the financial crisis, Cameron’s battle against the appointment of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, or the recent British idea to limit freedom of movement within the EU.
The problem is that #Britain wants to be right on principle.Tweet This
The problem is not so much that Britain disagrees on particular issues but that the government is more concerned with being right on principle than with building alliances for compromise outcomes. Consequently, the British have lost a number of like-minded friends on the way, from the Nordics to the Dutch to the Germans. Having elevated the question of EU membership to a matter of principle, however, Britain cannot win this argument, which is ultimately about how Europeans want to govern their affairs in the future—and whether they want to continue to govern them jointly.
Westminster should revisit the arguments that the three main political parties put forward in the Better Together campaign before the Scottish independence referendum in September. Those tempted to withdraw from the EU might realize that in the debate about a “Brexit,” they sound just as shrill as the Scottish nationalists who promised everything would be better if only they could rule themselves.
It is not that the EU has lost Britain, but rather that many in Britain have told the EU to get lost.
The EU hasn't lost #Britain, but many in Britain have told the EU to get lost.Tweet This
If there is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017, as Prime Minister David Cameron has promised, it is hard to see the Brits voting to stay in. Forget the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is a symptom not a cause of the profound disenchantment many in the UK feel toward the EU.
For years, Brits have been told by politicians, the press, and business that the EU is no good. The union allows too many foreigners into Britain, they say. Its single currency is a disaster. It overregulates. It has no growth. It takes too much money from Brits and wastes it on protectionist Common Agricultural Policy rackets, and its accounts are crooked.
The idea that by 2017 all these negatives will lead the British to vote to stay in the EU is optimism too far. Prepare for a “Brexit.”
There are two sides to this question. The first focuses on the domestic debate. The second ponders the impact of a potential British withdrawal on the rest of the EU.
The UK debate on #Europe is like an encephalogram: sometimes quiet but never flat.Tweet This
The UK debate on Europe may appear simplistic and misinformed to many observers, but it is far livelier than that in most other member states. It is like an encephalogram: it may quiet down on occasions, but the line is never flat. Does the current mood herald a “Brexit”? The outlook is certainly very Euroskeptic. As long as the debate remains so negative and EU supporters cannot figure out how to curb this trend, the risk of overwhelming negativity is looming.
The British question also provokes debates among other EU member states. How do they position themselves? No one wants the UK out, but very few will want to appear too lenient toward Britain (and perhaps more sensitive toward Prime Minister David Cameron). Moreover, the discussions touch on the scope of the EU’s competences. For instance, while the debate on immigration is raging in the UK, many more countries support an EU debate on the issue now than in previous years.
For better or for worse, Britain is still the black sheep the EU doesn’t like to admit it wants to keep. But the 28 member states need to acknowledge that in the current institutional setup, it will become increasingly difficult to keep the UK in if the eurozone grows and deepens.
Although British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to be doing his best to lose Europe, Europe has not yet lost the UK.
Paradoxically, opinion polls suggest that British support for continued EU membership is rising in response to the growing challenge posed by the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). According to a recent Ipsos MORI study, support for membership is currently at 56 percent, up from 44 percent in 2012, while only 36 percent favor departure, down from 48 percent two years ago.
The possibility of a #Brexit is finally being taken seriously.Tweet This
This may be because the possibility of a “Brexit” is finally being taken seriously. It is one thing to gripe endlessly about “Brussels” and a very different matter to contemplate Britain’s future outside the EU.
Yet this does not mean that people wish things to remain as they are: most of those who favor continued membership would prefer a looser, less political relationship with the EU. In short, this suggests that a significant proportion of Britons would be happy to remain in the EU, albeit on different terms.
The real question, however, is whether the EU can realistically be expected to agree to Cameron’s seven conditions for remaining in the union without undermining its own credibility and internal cohesion.
The view from Spain is especially relevant, as that country has absorbed more than 4 million immigrants in the past decade without this resulting in the emergence of xenophobic anti-immigration parties. What is more, there are some 700,000 British expats in Spain, many of them elderly, who enjoy unlimited access to the country’s healthcare system and other social services and who have never been accused of cashing in on “free benefits.”
Spanish elites are not unduly concerned by the possibility of a British exit. Most Spaniards continue to support EU (and eurozone) membership in spite of the economic crisis and the acute social pain it has brought with it. Many believe that only deeper integration can provide a solution to the eurozone’s current difficulties and future viability, and Britain has little to offer in this regard.
There was a time when the UK was seen as a generally constructive influence in the EU, particularly with regard to the internal market. From a Spanish perspective at least, that time may have passed.
Seen from the outside, Britain is tied up in knots over its relationship with the EU. The country yearns not to be constrained by the complexities of the union, and it is clearly tempted by a new, go-it-alone, global adventure. Yet it is held up by a quintessentially British sense of pragmatism that points to the many benefits of the UK remaining part of the EU.
The #UK is held up by a quintessentially British sense of pragmatism.Tweet This
The key question lies in the realm of social psychology and has to do with whether Britain can perform its own mental reset while remaining an EU member. The impossible task seems to be to defuse the emotionally charged part of the debate: some suggest that the world will end if Britain leaves the EU, while others argue this will happen if it stays.
In the battle to keep Britain in the EU, the big question is who should take the first step. Since it is London that wants to renegotiate its membership, Britain’s European partners are right to be in waiting mode to hear more about British expectations. Many capitals do not like the early signals they get. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ideas on free movement of persons strike right at the heart of European integration.
However, sooner or later, a deal will need to be made. It can be either a random selection of hard-won concessions or a grown-up settlement that both sides approach with an open mind. Britain’s future in the EU depends on how this key issue is addressed.
The victory of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the Rochester by-election on November 20 indicates more that London has lost England than that the EU has lost Britain. The deep isolation of London’s globalized political class from the rest of the British population is similar in many ways to the situation in prerevolutionary France and Russia.
The recent #UKIP victory indicates that London has lost England.Tweet This
The photo posted on Twitter by the former shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, which appeared to mock UKIP’s working-class supporters and which led to her resignation from the Labour Party leadership, had a certain Marie Antoinette dismissiveness to it that might have been expected from a Tory.
British resentment toward Brussels is simply a permutation of deep disaffection at home and the stoking of English nationalism in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in September. Both Scottish and English nationalism reflects a revolt against the isolation of political and economic leaders and the inequality that globalization has produced in the West.
The EU is to some extent collateral damage in the UK debate, although the union is experiencing the same resentment on the continent as well. The conventional wisdom in Europe seems to be that pragmatism will come out on top—as it has so often in British and English history. But this may underestimate a political dynamic that might overwhelm more pragmatic economic considerations.
The EU has not “lost” Britain. The union is actually doing things that Britain has demanded: cutting its budget, reducing regulation, adopting technology-neutral climate policies.
#Cameron appears to have lost any determination to keep the UK in the EU.Tweet This
The problem is that British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to have lost any determination to keep the UK in the EU (if he ever had any). His attempt to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission presidency was vainglorious—and if Cameron hadn’t taken his Conservative Party out of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, Juncker might not have been the EPP candidate.
The commission’s “demand” that the UK pay an extra £1.7 billion ($2.7 billion) to the EU budget was a calculation made under rules agreed in 2009. Cameron could have sought rule changes during the EU budget negotiations (and blamed his Labour predecessors). Instead, he did nothing, then blamed the commission.
After proposing an “in or out” referendum on Britain’s EU membership, the prime minister could have sought—and would probably have achieved—sensible reforms to make the EU work better, then led a campaign for an “in” vote. Instead, Cameron is demanding an end to the free movement of labor, one of the cornerstones of the EU.
There is no chance that other EU member states will give him this. So, if reelected at the next general election in May 2015, Cameron will probably lead a campaign to take Britain out of the union. That would undo the achievement of one of his Conservative predecessors, Edward Heath.
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