Brexit is a challenge, but the UK is not the only source of problems

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Roger Liddle
Roger Liddle

Former Special Adviser on European matters to Prime Minister Tony Blair and President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.

If David Cameron remains Prime Minister after the May 2015 general election, then the question of whether “the EU would be better off without Britain” is one that many of the UK’s EU partners will begin to ask. But the key question is a different one. It is whether once Cameron is forced to define what he regards as an acceptable basis for Britain’s continuing membership, our partners will feel a compelling need to accommodate his demands?

In some quarters, there has always been an anti-British sentiment on the continent. For committed EU integrationists, British membership has been a grave disappointment: a drag on “ever closer union”, an intergovernmentalist obstacle to the progress of the “community method” and in foreign policy, a lackey of the U.S. Yet even the harshest of Britain’s critics knows this to be a caricature. Remember that golden moment when Thatcher was persuaded to back Jacque Delors and agree to the Single European Act? And then there was Tony Blair’s bold attempt to lead in Europe, which yielded concrete results in the European defence initiative, the Lisbon strategy of economic and social reform, EU leadership on climate change, more ambitious development co-operation in Africa and elsewhere and the ratification with British assent of three new treaties – Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon.

A referendum would not constrain a future British government from pursuing a more ambitious vision of European co-operation. But, a British “no” vote to leave the EU would be difficult to reverse within most of our lifetimes

Some of the UK’s partners have contemptuously dismissed these treaties as “British texts”, falling far short of the ideal. But these treaty changes were agreed by Britain, and they took Europe forward. They have facilitated most of the institutional developments put in place since 2010 to save the euro, as well as the election for the first time by the European Parliament of the commission’s president.

When David Cameron presents his renegotiation demands, it will put up in lights a miserably cramped vision of the EU’s role and purpose: Little more than the free trade advantages of the single market. But our partners should remember that it is substance not presentation that matters in terms of the EU’s potential for long-term development. In itself, a referendum would not constrain a future British government from pursuing a more ambitious vision of European co-operation. But, a British “no” vote to leave the EU would be difficult to reverse within most of our lifetimes.

From the EU’s perspective, a Brexit would not be fatal, but it would mark a significant diminution of the EU’s global weight and influence. It would also make it more difficult for the EU’s common interests in trade and foreign policy to be secured. Out of Europe, the UK would be a thorn in the side not only of a common foreign and security policy but also of the elimination of tax avoidance.

From the EU’s perspective, a Brexit would not be fatal, but it would mark a significant diminution of the EU’s global weight and influence

Similarly Britain’s “national strategy” outside the EU would be to become much more of a neo-liberal competition state. Inward investors attracted to Britain by the advantages of access to the single market would have to be “bribed” to stay in the UK by lower corporate tax rates; laxer health, safety and environmental rules; and low wage competition without the floor of basic standards that the social chapter secures. This would be damaging to public welfare in Britain, but also damaging to the viability of the “social market” economies in continental Europe forced to compete with Britain.

The present construction of Europe is, of course, far from perfect. But it is unfair to blame the British exclusively for that. If we take the lack of progress in building social Europe, then isn’t eastern Europeans’ reluctance to lock themselves into labour standards they judge they cannot afford at least as important. And when it comes to tax harmonisation, it is Ireland with its specially favourable corporate tax rate and Luxembourg with their expertise in wealth management and legitimate schemes of tax avoidance that have most to answer for.

On institutional questions, it is not the UK that is at present blocking progress towards fiscal federalism in the eurozone. British eurosceptics are in fact willing it on, because in their view a more integrated eurozone creates the conditions for a looser relationship between the euro-outs and euro-ins. Rather, the obstacle at present lies in the Élysée Palace where the German offer of financial help tied to firm commitments to structural reform sends shivers down many a French socialist spine.

Britain has in the past played the role of the politically convenient obstacle to progress. Our partners have bemoaned British lack of community spirit while at the same time knowing full well that if it weren’t for the UK as a convenient whipping boy, they would have to take the flak for vetoing progress. Europe needs the British – not just for the global weight and reach we still add, but as a reality check on unrealistic visions and dreams.

The British have a record of being difficult when EU laws are under discussion, but also about being tenacious in upholding the EU laws they have agreed. I am confident that our EU partners will recognise the importance of that contribution. If Cameron wins the British election and presents his demands for renegotiation, they should collectively take a deep breath, not get carried away in rhetorical battles and deal with the substance of what he proposes in a way that gives no succour to the many in his party who want out.

Insights

view all insights
Track title

Category

00:0000:00
Stop playback
Video title

Category

Close

We use cookies to improve your online experience.
For more information, visit our privacy policy

Africa initiative logo

Dismiss