As the drama over a possible British exit from the EU rumbles on, my belief that the UK should leave is reaffirmed. Not because I’m a Euroskeptic but, on the contrary, because I strongly support the EU. The risks for the EU of Britain leaving have been widely discussed and should not be underestimated, but there are also benefits for an EU without the UK. Resolving many of the EU’s current challenges requires deeper integration and collective action—and sensible reforms. None of this is possible with an obstructionist UK still in the club.
The EU has been operating in a state of crisis for eight years since the financial turmoil in 2008. The way out of this crisis lies in compliance with existing EU law, common solutions, and closer integration in many policy areas, most notably finance. Competent management of the EU’s challenges will do more than any slick visibility measure to restore the European public’s support.
The fundamental principles on which the EU was built have never been fully understood or accepted in the UK. These principles include the supremacy of EU law over national legislation and reduced sovereignty, which member states willingly cede in the interests of the common good.
Generally, with the exception of small minorities on the pro- and anti-EU sides, most of the British public was not particularly interested in the bloc. For years, opinion polls showed a slim majority of Brits in favor of continued membership, lots of undecideds, but a strong majority indifferent. Until it was conflated with immigration, tiny numbers considered Europe an important issue—3 percent at the time of the 2010 general election according to one poll; even as recently as 2015, only 13 percent considered the EU important.
True, the British public didn’t trust the EU institutions (only 20 percent did in 2010, according to a Eurobarometer survey), however Brits didn’t trust their own political institutions much more (around 25 percent). Now, the more prominent the Brexit debate becomes, the more the polls show the UK population turning against the EU. That is not surprising as many British sources of information are highly biased.
If the UK remains in the EU on the basis of the February 19 deal on the terms of the UK’s membership, which led British Prime Minister David Cameron to crow about “special status,” it would open up the prospect of each member state negotiating its own special status, a lethal version of variable geometry.
The deal risks imposing the UK’s vision of a looser union, not just a version that predates the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, but one that rejects the authority of EU law and the principle of equal treatment. In an era of nationalism, many leaders are ready to use a new principle of special treatment to their advantage. Indeed, the basis of nationalism is that one’s own nation is distinct from others and deserves preferential treatment. The EU will be locked in perpetual negotiations about the specialness of each member state as every national capital seeks to secure its own exclusions from the union’s common rules.
The unedifying spectacle of EU leaders discussing how to appease the UK’s Euroskeptics while desperate people fleeing the war-torn Middle East and North Africa drown in Europe’s seas is only the start. The vision of a two-speed EU with an inner core becomes more appealing, but even the EU’s armies of lawyers, think tankers, and academics, with their love of debates about EU organizational structures, will struggle to prepare an institutional design to put into practice a functional two-tier system.
The irony is that the deal the prime minister struck won’t work. Whatever its contents, how does Cameron plan to win the June 23 referendum on the UK’s EU membership with the virulently Euroskeptic British media shaping the debate in cahoots with the Euroskeptic elements of the political elite?
Cameron himself is hardly a persuasive advocate for membership. He wants the UK to remain in, but I’ve never heard him say a positive word about the EU—with the rare exception of the benefits of membership for Britain’s security. The tone and content of his speeches present the EU as a necessary evil at best; at worst, Europe and Europeans are the enemy, with Cameron promising to “lock and load” before going to Brussels and keep scroungers out of Britain at all costs. He often talks as though the UK has already left.
If the UK does leave, it is likely to break up, with the more pro-European Scotland voting for independence so it can rejoin the EU as a separate member state. That in turn opens up the question of UN reform. A diminished UK would have a tenuous grip on its permanent seat at the UN Security Council; the current situation is already palpably unjust. The disproportionate number of (male) British officials in senior UN positions could also be reviewed. Without its Five Eyes ally at the table, the United States would lose some of its influence on EU decisionmaking—no bad thing.
The UK government’s approach to the EU is characterized by an unpleasant nationalism, which interprets everything in terms of the greatness of Britain. The positive role that the UK has at times played as a promoter of international standards on human rights, development, and climate change has been eclipsed. According to the government, migrants want to come to the UK because of this greatness, not because of, say, the English language. A refugee fleeing the horrors of Syria or the externally generated chaos of Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to speak English as his or her only European language and thus to want to be in the UK to work, like most migrants. Family reunification and community support are also parts of migrants’ reasoning, rather than a desire to exploit the UK’s greatness.
Current strands of Euroskepticism also reflect a deeper antipathy toward multilateralism, based in part on a lack of international experience. Working in international environments provides direct experience of other forms of politics, such as the consensus-based decisionmaking that is part of EU practice. Multilateralism both contrasts with and tempers the adversarial and combative British political and legal traditions. Those who work for or with multilateral organizations are all too aware of their faults but also see their value, benefits, and necessity.
There is hardly a member of Cameron’s government who has ever worked outside London, and the influence of the internationalist Foreign and Commonwealth Office is vastly diminished. A nationalistic UK—deluded about its power, pursuing its own self-interest, and with an underlying antipathy toward Europe—is not a good EU member.
So Brexit is not all bad. The rest of the EU should work out how to take advantage of the UK’s departure, because it’s also inevitable.
Catherine Woollard has worked in Brussels since 2008 in different positions. She writes here in a personal capacity.