A lecture given by Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, the prominent London-based think tank defining itself as “pro-European but not uncritical”, offers us a great opportunity to reflect on one of today’s most salient issues in the European Union (EU): the future of the UK in, or outside, the EU.
Charles Grant offered a lively analysis of the situation on November 12 at the London School of Economics. He addressed several questions such as the reasons why Great Britain may leave the EU, the state of British and European opinions on that matter, and the further implications of Britain’s choice.
Why and how may Great Britain leave the EU?
In the aftermath of what The Telegraph called a “stinging defeat” for David Cameron – who faced a vote against his stand on EU budget in the House of Commons on October 31, because Conservative backbenchers joined Labour MPs in supporting an amendment asking that the 2014-2020 budget be “reduced in real terms”–, there is no doubt that the question of the membership of the UK in the EU is all the more at stake as the disagreements between Great Britain and the EU keep on adding to the list. In December 2011, David Cameron used his veto power to prevent Great Britain from participating in the fiscal compact, along with the Czech Republic, and he has been telling since then that he was prepared to hold a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU after the next general elections. So, is Britain going to leave the EU?
Charles Grant argues that it would be very simple for Britain to leave, and that in his opinion “the chances are fifty-fifty” that it does. The recent vote against Cameron confirms the shared idea that he is now a weak leader who does not control his own majority. The chances of a referendum are great since UK Independence party might win the 2014 European elections and so gain leverage to impose it after Britain’s general elections in 2015, asking the British: “Do you want to stay in or leave the EU?”. The Conservative party might as well force Labour to hold the referendum, by calling them arrogant for refusing people to have a say. Paradoxically, the Tories might keep Britain in the EU, by getting a better deal for Britain, or at least negotiate enough so that Cameron could argue staying with the terms renegotiated by him. Charles Grant admits being more nervous about what would happen if Labour won, because they are much more pro-European and so they could not renegotiate and would probably have to have an “in or out vote”. So, today, Britain’s chances are fifty-fifty depending on the outcome of the next general elections. But will Britain’s opinion towards the EU still be as bad as it is nowadays by 2015?
Do the British want to leave? The state of Britain’s opinion
Charles Grant focuses on three groups whose opinions particularly matter with regards to the current European ordeal in order to illustrate the great shift that has occurred in British opinion towards the EU.
The business community has undergone a tremendous shift in its views on the European project over the last decades. We are now far from the time when Britain in Europe, a major pro-European cross-party pressure group, was launched in 1999 to support a “yes” vote for the adoption of the euro. The Eurozone is seen as a slow giant which British business leaders wish to turn their back on. They believe Britain should cast its ties with the EU because the future lies in the BRICS – the association of leading emerging economies, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa since 2012. Mr Grant argues that they minimize the costs that leaving the EU would imply; looking at how Norway and Switzerland have negotiated access on some economic areas without being part of the EU, they leave out that Britain would still have to deal with EU rules in order to negotiate agreements on free trade, they could not simply join the single market. In Mr Grant’s words: “one cannot just leave the EU and join the single market, because what the Eurosceptics do not understand is that the single market is not about tariffs but about the absence of barriers”.
Another influential shift in the debate within British public opinion is that of the Tories, for whom opposition to the European Communities Act of 1972 – an Act of the British Parliament providing for the incorporation of European Community (EC) law into the domestic law – has become a prerequisite to be considered a valid candidate. In addition to a strong social conservatism, what the Conservative Party has in common with the American Tea Party is their shared hate of the state, leading them to oppose to the EU the same range of argument the Tea Party does to the American “Big Government”. This trend of the radicalisation of the Tories towards the EU is, for pro-Europeans, all the more threatening as the Labour Party cannot be relied on. Indeed, although it is pro-European, Labour’s leader Ed Miliband is considered a Brownist, that is to say pragmatic, and focused on fighting the Tories rather than fighting for the EU.
Finally, Britain’s public opinion seems to be rather in favour of leaving the EU, by a majority of 60% according to recent polls. Considering that three or four years ago, people had a positive view on the UK’s role in the EU, one can wonder: why do they now want to leave? The main reason lies in the Eurocrisis, in which the EU seems to be run by incompetent technocrats, and where the absence of charismatic leaders becomes critical. Charles Grant believes that we are moving towards a three-tier Europe, divided between the Eurozone, a “Eurozone Plus”, and those who refuse the banking union – Great Britain, the Czech Republic and the Hungarians. In 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community because they needed a more integrated economy, whereas today, to be fair to the sceptics, it seems that the English economy is reorienting itself away from the EU; the economy is becoming less EU-focused. The dire Eurozone crisis, being “such bad PR [public relations] for the EU” in itself, is also analysed through overall very biased media. The one-sided nature of the debate in the country is striking, as very few people in favour of further integration stand up.
However, one unexpected actor might throw itself in the battle: Scotland. Indeed, although many people doubt that it is likely to pass, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum may cast interesting light on the issue. Charles Grant underlines the two sides of the coin: on the one hand, one argument that could in fact push the Scottish to pass the Bill would be the perspective that Great Britain is moving away from the EU because they are more pro-Europeans themselves, whereas on the other hand a British majority without the Scottish votes would get much more conservative and Eurosceptic. So, the Scottish case – which could set a precedent in Europe where other independence claims could follow suit in Cataluña, Belgium or Northern Italy – also reveals big implications in both ways, with regards to the impact of the British debate on the Scottish debate and the other way around . As a whole, it does matter that a fair debate could happen, because it does matter whether Great Britain does leave the EU or not.
What to expect from the future of the UK and the EU?
Charles Grant argues that Britain has given a lot to Europe and has yet a lot more to give. Because the British believe in the single market more than any other member state, the EU could become more protectionist without them, as the liberalisation of services is blocked by France and Germany. Not only would it impact the economy, but also the EU foreign policy, in which Britain has contributed a lot, proving its capability alongside the French in Libya for instance, where the retreating United States left the intervention to them.
In order to prevent Great Britain from living, we would need political and business leaders to speak out. But the UK is behaving in such an unconstructive way that the member states don’t try to keep it in the EU, although the consequences of their departure would be multifaceted. Although there would probably not be one single answer were the British to leave, it would not go unnoticed. Liberal countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden would fear that the EU moves towards the French anti-globalization and anti-capitalism view. Germany may also fear France to become too influential, but some French Gaullists and some patriots in Belgium might not be sad about the news. However, a majority would surely share concerns about foreign policy issues and potential consequences on the international credibility of the EU as a global actor. As the Lisbon Treaty introduced exit mechanism (a clause presented in Article 50 TEU) and considering that, were a referendum to be held, EU member states and supranational institutions respect democratic votes, one can think that neither can the EU stop Britain, nor would it wish to.
But reversely, what would the future of the EU look like if Britain actually chose to stay? The odds that Britain will remain reluctant to engage with the EU are high, since it will be bound by law. Indeed, the European Union Act adopted in 2011 has actually amended the 1972 European Communities Act by requiring that a referendum be held on any future amendments of the Lisbon Treaty. As the 2014 new Convention on the Future of Europe may bring more fiscal integration and more budget control to the table, it is unlikely that new treaty changes could be introduced without triggering this referendum lock. Such a British dead end could therefore lead some member states to wish they could leave Britain behind, thus entailing the UK to lose soft power and credibility in the Union. Such tensions might arise earlier than that, since the banking union is already on the agenda for the next year.
No one can forecast what the future holds for the UK and the EU, may it be through a ballot or not, but we can still argue that their relationship has reached a critical turning point by looking at the underlying reasons pushing Britain to consider leaving the EU, as well as the shift that occurred in different actors’ attitude in the British society and its public opinion towards the EU, and the consequences of the possible outcomes of this economic, political and legal ordeal.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe:
- Philippe Perchoc, “Union et désunions dans l’espace européen de l’après Guerre Froide, Etats des lieux”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Jeudi 4 octobre 2007, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/272, consulté le 12 novembre 2012
- The Centre for European Reform; all contents are free and available on the think tank’s website: http://www.cer.org.uk/
- Gilson , Chris and Brown, Stuart A., “Brussels blog round up for 27 October – 2 November – defeat for UK government over EU budget, populism vs. technocracy, and would independence help or hurt Catalonia’s economy?”, European Politics and Policy (EUROPP), http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2012/11/02/blog-round-up-for-27-october-2-november/
- Kirkup, James, “David Cameron suffers stinging defeat over EU budget”, The Telegraph, 31 October 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9647205/David-Cameron-suffers-stinging-defeat-over-EU-budget.html
- Watt, Nicolas, “David Cameron suffers Commons defeat on EU budget”, The Guardian, 31 October 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/31/cameron-commons-defeat-eu-budget
- “Britain in Europe #6: Should David Cameron veto the EU budget?”, Debating Europe, 1 November 2012, http://www.debatingeurope.eu/2012/11/01/should-david-cameron-veto-the-eu-budget/
Photo source: Davekellam, Wikicommons