EUROPE & THE UNITED
THE EUROPEAN UNION AND THE UNITED KINGDOM
David Cameron returned from the EU budget
negotiations in Brussels earlier this month, with
what he claimed was a victory. Not only had he
succeeded in his aim of reducing the budget, but
he had also, he claimed, demonstrated that his
January speech on Europe, with its pledge to hold
a referendum on British membership after the next
general election, had not isolated Britain, as his
critics charge, but had instead strengthened
Britain's hand. After all, had we not worked
closely with Germany, the most powerful EU member
state, and did not that imply that the Germans,
portrayed as intensely anxious to keep Britain in
the Union to "balance" their relationship with
France, would be sympathetic to the demands for
change and reform that in due course Britain will
present to Brussels? The reporting in much of the
British press of Cameron's Brussels "triumph"
spread this notion widely in the United Kingdom.
If Mr Cameron really believes this, he is more
deeply mired in self-delusion than anybody had so
far imagined. The budget "victory" was a German
victory over France and the anti-austerity camp in
the Union, not a British victory over Europe. To
paint what happened as a Brussels concession to
British pressure is a wilful distortion of the
Germany, pursuing the policy of austerity, which
it has been notably instrumental in imposing on
other member states, saw no reason why the
Brussels budget, although a small matter compared
to vastly larger national budgets, should be
exempt. The motives of Britain, or, to be more
exact, of the Conservative government, were more
mixed. It is also in the austerity camp, of
course, but in addition must try to manage a
constituency in its own ranks and among a portion
of its traditional voters which is innately
anti-European. To this constituency, anything
which diminishes Brussels is welcome. Indeed, it
could diminish to vanishing point if some of them
had their way.
Although the Germans found Britain a useful, if
not necessarily vital, ally on the budget, the
anti-European dimension of the British position is
anathema to them. They do not share it in the
slightest degree and they will not pander to it
now, or in the future.
The truth is that Cameron's Europe speech and the
referendum pledge which was its centrepiece have
set Britain on an extremely dangerous course which
puts at risk our good relations with our European
neighbours and the United States, could undermine
our economy, and even contribute to the break-up
of the United Kingdom.
It is not impossible that continual harping on the
possibility that Britain, if its supposedly ‘just
demands’ are not met, could leave the EU, will
affect the coming Scottish referendum, raising the
ultimate possibility of an independent Scotland in
the EU, and an "independent" England outside of
However that may be, the chances of some kind of
political and economic shipwreck have been
increased by the Cameron speech. In the words of
Opposition leader Ed Milliband, Britain could
"sleepwalk" to the EU exit, and, if it should do
so, the awakening would be rude indeed.
If Britain did stumble out of the union, the
consequences would be dire. Manufacturing in
Britain, especially if Japanese or American owned,
would be damaged as firms whose main reason for
being in the United Kingdom is to gain access to
the European market, faced new costs and charges.
They would reconsider their options: many might
decide to move, or to scale down their operations.
The City would also suffer, if to a lesser degree.
Britain's strategic relationship with the United
States would be lessened. As Dr Robin Niblett.
director of Chatham House, wrote in a recent
paper, "Britain would have to fight its corner
alone in Washington on trade and regulatory
issues. And it would have to guard against
becoming or being seen once again as a proxy of
the United States at a time when the government is
trying to chart a more distinctive course for
British foreign policy." Perhaps most important, a
British departure would turn the relationship with
its neighbours from one still characterised by a
residue of the gratitude and fraternal feeling
experienced during the struggle against Nazism and
the Cold War, into a very cold affair. A British
exit would be seen by the rest of Europe as a
rejection, understood as meaning that the British
no longer wished to be part of the European
project. Britain, for its part, might then
belatedly realise that the Union has been for many
years now, the framework that gives meaning to its
national life. But by that time it would be on the
outside looking in.
Milliband's metaphor is well chosen, because what
is ultimately at issue here is that a wing of the
Conservative party and a significant proportion of
the British people are lost in a dream which has
hardly any connection with the reality of British
society today. In this dream, Britain has a strong
economy, not a weak one, based on the one hand, on
foreign owned firms here, because it gives them
access to the
EU market, and, on the other, on a damaged and
still not properly regulated financial sector. In
this dream Britain is still militarily powerful,
in spite of its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan
and in spite of the running down of the armed
forces to almost miniature proportions.
In this dream, Britain is held back from achieving
its full potential by a mass of pointless
regulations, most of them emanating from Brussels,
Instead of being a society which, like other
states of the EU, needs better regulation, most of
it transnational, if it is to avoid disasters
ranging from floods to financial crises and
terrorist attacks, or in a more minor key,
scandals like the ‘horseburger’ crisis now
In this dream, Britain is still very important to
the United States, instead of being only modestly
valued by Washington. In this dream, Britain is a
white Anglo-Saxon society which has foolishly
allowed all kinds of foreigners to come in and is
even more foolishly going to allow more, many from
the EU, to come in the future.
In this dream, Britain is constantly outmanoeuvred
in the EU by states which do not like us and pay
no attention to our interests, instead of being a
country which gets its way on some issues and
loses on others, like everybody else.
And, finally, some of the dreamers imagine a
prosperous and happy future for a Britain which
has left the EU but still maintains all the useful
and beneficial links with Europe that it needs,
Norway and Switzerland being often mentioned in
More suppose that Britain can renegotiate its
membership to get rid of all the aspects of it
that they do not like, often refusing to grasp the
difference between issues covered by the principle
of subsidiarity and more fundamental matters laid
down in the treaty itself. Many persist in seeing
the British relationship with Europe not as the
complex multilateral affair it is, but in starkly
bilateral terms: Britain v. Europe.
David Cameron is not a stupid man, and there is
reason to suppose that he is, at bottom,
relatively pro-European. But he must manage a
party which although it has always contained a few
Euro-enthusiasts, is only reluctantly European and
whose right wing has never reconciled itself to
membership of the EU or its predecessors. He is
also trying, obviously, to outflank UKIP, which
threatens to draw away his voters in a general
election in which the Conservative Party's chances
of victory have already been weakened, not only by
austerity's failures, but by his coalition
partner's refusal to endorse constituency boundary
reforms. Hence the famous speech, aimed at
reassuring that sceptical centre, appeasing that
right wing, blunting the UKIP threat, and
persuading our European partners to give way on a
range of policies in order to keep us in.
Tactically, it may work for a while. But what a
hostage to fortune the British prime minister has
offered up! In essence David Cameron has
constructed an elaborate trap for himself and his
government. The speech, like a certain kind of
doughnut, has a hole in the middle. The outer
circle of confection consists of perfectly
respectable and reasonable reflections on the
usefulness of Europe, together with the
unexceptionable argument that its institutions are
in need of some degree of reform. Then there is
the commitment to renegotiate with Britain's
interests in mind. But to renegotiate what ?
Here there is a studied vagueness -- the hole in
the doughnut, as it were. Mr Cameron does not say,
with any clarity, what he is going to ask his
European partners to agree to "give" Britain. The
reasons are obvious enough.
If he were to fill that hole with detailed
proposals that were sufficiently modest to stand a
good chance of being accepted by other EU members,
he would immediately be denounced by his own right
wing and by UKIP for not asking for enough. If he
were to fill that hole with more radical demands,
he would be immediately told by his European
partners, perhaps privately at first, but it would
not stay private for long, that there is not ‘a
snowball's chance in hell’ of getting his way.
Could he find enough wriggle room in a judicious
mixture of realistic and unrealistic proposals to
avert this? Maybe, but it is a very big maybe.
Meanwhile, Britain loses friends in Europe every
week by crass accusations like those directed at
Romania and Bulgaria over emigration, or by
crowing because London has allegedly put one over
on M.Hollande on the budget. Europeans do not know
what to marvel at more, Britain's vanity, its
arrogance, or its ignorance.
The likelihood is that Cameron will carry on being
vague for as long as he can because only in that
way can he keep everyone halfway happy. But sooner
or later the cat will have to come out of the bag.
What is tactically advantageous now could then
turn into a strategic disaster.
It could lose him the next election but, if he
wins, he would then find himself faced with that
riskiest of projects in modern Europe, a
referendum on the future of the continent's
political arrangements. Time after time, in
country after country, such referenda have been
lost or won only by a wafer thin majority.
In part, that is because electorates vote their
discontents and relish an opportunity to put a
spoke in the wheel of elites.
In part it is because Britain is of course not
alone in its dreamworld.
In most European countries there is opposition to
Europe, a wish that a different kind of national
life was possible, and nostalgia for the past --
the cocktail that is Euroscepticism everywhere.
The austerity policies that have hacked away at
the prospects and the quality of life of ordinary
people all over Europe have made it worse. But
even if there is Euroscepticism everywhere,
Britain is the worst case, and the referendum
Cameron proposes is the most fundamental one of
all: in or out!
Turning down a constitution or a treaty extension
is one thing. Leaving is quite another. That is
why it is a question that the wise politician, in
any European country, does not ask. If the answer
is No, then that is a disaster.
If it is Yes, that is another kind of disaster,
because the majority is most unlikely to be
overwhelming, and the precedent is then set for a
periodic return to the issue, with all the
uncertainties and stupidities that involves.