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EU will be poorer without Britain
Publication Date : 29-10-2012
The British public's disillusionment with the European Union is "the deepest it has ever been", warned William Hague, the country's Foreign Secretary, recently. But that is a diplomatic understatement.
The reality is that for the first time in almost half a century, there is a real prospect of Britain leaving the EU altogether. And that will be an unmitigated disaster for the entire continent, comparable only to the danger of the break-up of the euro currency.
The United Kingdom joined the EU - then entitled the European Economic Community - in 1973 and it has been an awkward member ever since, fighting a rearguard and often lonely battle against every single measure designed to deepen European integration.
The usual explanation for a behaviour which infuriates the rest of Europe is that Britain suffers from a visceral historic mistrust of France and Germany. Or it has a romantic yearning for its old colonial past - the country which "has lost an empire and not yet found a role", as Dean Acheson, a former US secretary of state once memorably put it. Yet that's just facile nonsense, for Britain's reticence towards Europe is grounded on some practical considerations.
Countries joined the EU for a variety of reasons. Some - such as France, Germany and Italy - created a union because all their previous experiments to govern themselves separately ended in dictatorships and war. Others saw EU membership as a boost to their efforts to become open societies and economies, while others joined because they were too small to cope on their own and concluded that the EU would protect them from domination by a single European neighbour.
Yet Britain belonged to none of these categories: The country joined the EU only after its efforts to create other European structures failed. It did so not because it was attracted to the EU concept, but because it couldn't think of a better one. So, unlike the rest of Europe, Britain views the EU idea not as a political project designed to save the continent from its terrible past but rather as just a free market organisation with ridiculous political aspirations.
This fundamental divergence has clouded British policy for almost half a century. All eight prime ministers who ruled the country over this period realised that there were no votes to be had in fighting for the European idea.
But even in this long history of Euroscepticism, the predicament currently facing Prime Minister David Cameron is acute. Large chunks of his ruling Conservative party want not only an end to the transfer of more powers to Europe, but a reversal of this process altogether.
Last year, 81 out of 306 Conservative lawmakers defied Cameron by demanding a referendum on the subject; this was Britain's biggest parliamentary rebellion in decades. Worse still, the UK Independence Party, a movement whose entire purpose is to remove the country from the EU, now threatens to eat into the Conservatives' electoral base.
The imperative for Cameron is, therefore, no longer one of just running hard to stand still on European issues - a task performed by all his predecessors - but rather one of actually demonstrating that Britain can pull back from existing European projects.
The government's behaviour reflects the evolution of British public opinion. For decades, the idea of leaving the EU was argued only by political crackpots. No longer, however. From last year, opinion polls have shown an overall majority for such a proposition. But that's because the British are reacting to a complex web of factors, for which the EU itself is partly responsible.
The fate of the euro, the currency which Britain always refused to join, is hardly advertisement for the continent. And the sheer incompetence displayed by European leaders, who have spent more than two years in interminable summits debating what they should do, has transformed European policies into a farce. So, although Britain is not directly affected by the euro crisis, the episode has confirmed all the worst stereotypes ordinary Britons have about their continental neighbours.
Exiting a diminished EU
But there are bigger - if less evident - trends pulling Britain away from the continent. For decades, the EU was touted as a promoter of better social services. Had it not been for the Union, the women of Britain would have not enjoyed the maternity benefits they now have. But those days are over because of the financial crisis. A union which stands for ever-growing social welfare benefits supposedly offered for "free" can be popular, even if it does many other silly political things. But a union which stands for financial austerity must expect only brickbats.
Worse still, the EU no longer even offers the benefit of a big and growing export market. The latest statistics indicate that British exports to countries outside the EU grew during the first half of this year by an unprecedented 13 per cent, while trade with EU nations fell by 7.3 per cent. Britain is now back precisely in the position it held when it joined the EU: over half of its overall trade is with customers outside the continent. Cameron cannot ignore such developments and still hope to be re-elected.
None of this absolves the British Prime Minister from his own mistakes in managing the debate. By raising hopes that it is possible to "repatriate" powers from Brussels, the British leader risks promising what he cannot deliver. Not a single Foreign Office official in London believes that the UK would be able to get anything more than cosmetic changes.
Undeterred, however, Cameron recently announced that Britain will "examine" the option of imposing visas on citizens from Eastern Europe despite the fact that free movement of labour is one of the fundamental treaty obligations. Promising to study the possibility of opting out from the open border arrangements is similar in the European context to launching an examination on whether the Earth is flat: an exercise which is both irrelevant and ridiculous.
But the alternative of holding a referendum on Britain's EU membership is hardly any better, since Cameron risks getting the answer he does not want: a majority of the population voting to exit the EU altogether.
Tired of such unending machinations, many European leaders are now resigned to Britain's departure from the Union. Indeed, some actually welcome this.
Europe needs Britain
But Britain's departure will be a disaster for Europe. For, despite the noise they make, the British have always been good Europeans, sticklers for the implementation of European decisions. Germany, for instance, has twice as many cases as Britain before the European Court of Justice for alleged breaches of European law.
With Britain out, Europe will also lose its single most powerful military force, so if the Europeans already complain about being a trading giant but a political pygmy, they will be even more so with the British out of the equation.
Besides, a Britain outside the EU will not be like Switzerland, another nation which declined to join European structures. For the British are far too big to be ignored. Some 85 per cent of all the European financial deals are concluded in London, and this is likely to continue. Dealing with the British outside Europe will be a far more time-consuming exercise for the Europeans than having them inside the EU, however messy this may be.
The solution, therefore, does not come from dismissing British objections as tiresome but rather in realising to pledge to do anything to keep Britain inside the EU, just as governments promise to do everything to prevent the break-up of the euro.
And for the same reason. For a Europe without its single currency will be poorer, and poorer still will Europe be without the UK.