The standard way of looking at the UK’s EU referendum in other capitals around Europe, and indeed within the EU institutions in Brussels, is that – often a bit grudgingly – people feel it would be better for the EU if the UK does not leave. In this blog entry I am going to look at the alternative point of view – examining how the UK behaves towards the European Union, and also looking at what might change in the European Union in the absence of the UK. This piece is intentionally one-sided and should be read as such. I’m also trying to see the big picture, not the impact the outcome will have on my own personal situation.
I’m going to start with the nature of UK-EU relations.
“Why aren’t the British people scared of what might happen if they left?” a German friend asked me recently. A very fair question to ask, and one that, I think, is central to the misunderstandings that abound about the UK’s place in the European Union, and, ultimately, why it might be better for all concerned if the UK were to exit.
The UK is about the only country in the European Union that, at this juncture anyway, would even dare put its membership of the Union in question (others may dare follow the UK’s lead of course). The UK thinks it is the strong one in comparison to the rest, and it allows itself to pose this question because it thinks it is doing so from a position of strength. The UK is pretty smug about itself; this tweet by former Defence Minister Fox is a case in point.
The UK’s perceived position of strength is precisely the opposite of the view taken by Dutch cartoonist Jos Collignon, where a cranky and weak British boat is about to take the high seas after leaving the EU super tanker.
Joris Luyendijk’s polemic for The Guardian explains how the EU could call the UK’s bluff, and that it is the EU that holds the strong cards in the game with the UK. “It is typical of the British arrogance that they think they are sovereign, that other Member States would not want meaningful competition, and that they see themselves but not other Member States as global players” argues Adriaan Schout in NRC. These are not views the British will readily express about themselves.
Even those that notionally want to the UK to remain in the EU sound like they are at pains to do so. Take a look at the branding of the campaigns on the Remain side – the naming and imagery of Britain Stronger in Europe and Labour In For Britain are both rather macho and nationalistic. Meanwhile David Cameron, after his Brussels deal, stated that he does not love Brussels, but that he loves Britain – before then starting to make the case for Britain to stay through gritted teeth. It seems you have to be British first, see the ‘national interest’, and then, on that basis, argue to remain in the EU.
I have no illusions that the other Member States of the European Union behave altruistically. They do not. They fight their own corner in the EU, fiercely at times. But there are two important ways the UK’s behaviour here is different.
First, the UK sees dealing with the EU as a zero sum power game much more than any other country does. If the UK is to win (and times the UK has not won in the Council has shot up since 2009), that means others must lose. This is an extension of the Westminster political culture, where pack strength, rather than compromise, is the way to get things done. It is almost as if when Cameron looks up at a European Council summit he sees 27 Jeremy Corbyns around the table, to be defeated and humiliated, rather than 27 potential allies who could help him get what he wants.
Second, the UK wants a special deal for itself and completely lacks any awareness that other Member States of the European Union may not be especially amenable to that. Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert was forced to defend why Britain deserved an ‘Extrawurst’ (extra sausage – i.e. special treatment) to keep the UK in (video on Facebook here), while the UK Ambassador to Germany was asked what Britain would offer the rest in return for staying, and all he could suggest was that other Member States would be grateful to keep the UK in. Also note the UK’s EU budget rebate is never questioned in the UK – the dominant argument is the UK still pays too much in, refusing to see and understand the positions of all 27 other countries on this issue.
Meanwhile Cameron has promised that the referendum will settle the EU question in the UK for a generation, but I am not at all sure. It was only five years after the 1975 referendum that Labour was once again advocating withdrawal under Foot, and Boris Johnson’s chances of becoming Tory leader have risen thanks to his pro-Brexit stance, regardless of what happens in the actual referendum – this referendum could become a neverendum if the UK remains.
With the Tories far ahead of Labour in the polls (and about to gerrymander themselves out of sight), there is no way that UK-EU relations are going to return to anything better than a lower yet persistent level of sniping. Politicians in the rest of the EU would like the UK to return to something like pre-Iraq Blair style relations with European partners – but that sort of more constructive relationship is not on offer, even in the medium term. And that is all before the consistent and intense antipathy to the European Union of the British press is taken into account – no other country’s media is as ferocious in its opposition to the EU as Britain’s (and even Boris himself was instrumental at the start of it).
So that is the UK side of the conundrum. What about the European Union side? As Chris Kendall says in his post about the Brexit issue, “As a European, I see nothing to be gained for our collective wellbeing by further handicapping the European Union simply in order to appease one Member State.”
The European Union faces a series of pressures and crises, and the UK’s contribution to help solve these is at best negligible, and at worst destructive. The refugee crisis, war in Syria, the crisis in Ukraine and the threat from Russia, coping with the fallout from the financial crisis and Greece in the Eurozone – on all of these the UK has whined from the sidelines. Furthermore these issues are intensely political – they cannot be solved in the sort of laissez-faire, loose market-only union that the UK publicly advocates. As former French Prime Minister Rocard has argued, some sort of restart of the political integration process in the European Union that these challenges urgently require can only be achieved if the UK leaves.
The retort to Rocard may of course be that the populist parties in his native France and indeed elsewhere mean his vision cannot become a reality, but nowhere but the UK is the major current party of government so opposed to political integration as in the UK. Eurobarometer also tends to indicate that Europeans are not opposed to EU-wide solutions to pressing political problems. Why not, as Paul de Grauwe argues, let the UK leave, go through the pain of negotiating a trade deal to give them the trade they say they want with the EU, but then with the UK outside restart the advancement of a more political union?
The UK outside the EU would also, in time, have an impact on how the EU institutions work – it was notable that in Cameron’s renegotiation he views parliamentary democracy as only being possible nationally (hence his red card for national parliaments demand), and last decade the Treaty of Lisbon ended up with a permanent President of the European Council (and intergovernmental body) thanks to the pressure from the UK. More recently Cameron ‘vetoed’ Fiscal Compact in 2011, and the UK was mostly absent from the Spitzenkandidat process, before Cameron then thought he could veto Juncker – and failed. Making the EU institutions more federal and more democratic should hence be an easier task without the UK in the EU.
Brexit might also help the EU be more progressive. As Green MP Caroline Lucas writes in The Spectator, “It is the EU which is introducing caps on bankers’ bonuses, stronger action on tax evasion and avoidance, and more lobbying transparency. Even on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty, it is David Cameron who is the loudest cheerleader, and our European neighbours (3 million of whom have signed a petition opposing TTIP) who offer us the best chance of defeating it.” Put another way, it is the EU that is a force for some more progressive policies that could impact the UK, while Cameron and the UK government resists these. On environmental protection issues as diverse as NOx emissions and the power of kettles, the chances of the EU being greener depend on the UK not arguing for the contrary. Meanwhile Cameron is a major cheerleader for the EU’s deregulation agenda.
So that is the progressive and federalist case for Brexit. The EU would have a better chance at advancing progressive policies, and democratising itself, without the UK in it. For even if the UK were to vote to remain in the EU, such a vote is not going to set UK-EU relations on an even keel. Hence the rest of the EU should think like Rocard and De Grauwe and advocate Brexit, for the EU’s own sake.