José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission (left) and David Cameron, British PM (right) meet at Number 10 Downing Street in 2011. (Flickr)
Note: This article was first published on the French blog (but in English) on June 20th, 2012.
The UK and the EU need each other, not only as trade partners, but also as political allies. The question is: Can they maintain this mutually beneficial relationship with the UK withdrawing from the EU?
Whether we like it or not, David Cameron is currently a compulsory component of the EU. He governs a member state with the third largest population and economy, after France and Germany, and European Anglosceptics; as well English Eurosceptics must accept this and seek an optimal relationship.
Cameron says he is a friend of the EU and has no intention of leaving, but the reality is he’s more concerned with pleasing his private sector financiers, his old boy network and the US than he is with pleasing his European neighbours; but this should be no surprise. He leads a party that is historically eurosceptic, and many senior Conservatives today remain unhappy with the level of integration Britain has with the mainland, preferring more power in the hands of the elitist ruling classes of Britain than in Europe. Cameron’s recently announced refusal to participate in an EU-wide banking union and his reluctance, almost stubbornness, to sign any treaty that would hand any substantial power from Britain, or its beloved financial sector, to Brussels has impeded EU development and limited the much needed decisiveness necessary for effective policy making.
The bottom line is that the UK and the EU need each other, not like Hydrogen and Oxygen need each other to form water molecules, but they do need each other, not only as trade partners, but also as political allies.
A leaf could perhaps be taken out of the book of Switzerland and Norway; both enjoy good relations with the EU without full membership. They are both members of the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), so they can efficiently trade and benefit economically, without electing any seats in EU parliament or holding any veto power, so they cannot significantly restrict or adversely affect EU policy. Unique trade policies between the EU and Britain can be implemented, immigration quotas set, a consensus on foreign policy made and environmental targets established; private sector businesses can continue to operate in both markets and national football teams can still compete against each other, but the UK would not have the power to veto any developments that are against their interests nor have any seats in parliament to exert any unnecessarily patriotic influence.
This is possible, but at what cost? It would effectively reverse decades of UK-EU integration and may communicate the wrong message to other EU members. Withdrawal is extremely unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever, as many influential leaders in contemporary Europe such as Angela Merkel are against UK withdrawal and even though newly elected François Hollande is heavily critical of Britain’s EU policy, he does not actively advocate their withdrawal publicly. Also, what would happen to the money the UK has contributed to the European Investment Bank (EIB) and vice versa? The UK is amongst its top 4 contributors alongside Germany, France and Italy, capitalising the bank with over €37.5bn , and UK-based financial leviathans such as Barclays and Scottish Enterprise hold an 8% share in the European Investment Fund (EIF) , these need to be considered.
Furthermore, the euro crises and its unprecedented bond market activity have integrated the UK’s and the EU’s financial markets in a practically irreversible, unaccountably clandestine manner, and this would be difficult to manoeuvre around without significant private sector conflict and national disagreements. They are too integrated at this moment for the UK to withdraw from the EU without sufficient justification and Cameron is simply not worth the trouble, withdrawing now is too hasty, as Britain’s opposition frontbench has criticised Cameron’s EU policy and promised to be more compromising if elected; Labour are likely to be a much greater friend to the EU than Cameron and it is likely that they will get elected before Cameron’s EU policy gets detrimental enough to spur UK withdrawal movements. Cameron knows this and is maximizing his clique’s gains at the expense of the EU and the EU should not tolerate this foe-like behaviour from a supposed friend.
Cameron has shown at times that he is a friend of the EU, in cases like the intervention in Libya for example and contributing to bail-outs. However, he has made his priorities clear; the EU comes after London finance and political seniority, rendering him a foe, this is encapsulated by his veto and insubordination to EU financial regulation. It is ignorantly naïve however, for any intelligent observer to perceive the eurosceptic aspects of Cameron’s EU policy, as patriotic England waving their flags and defending their island. I doubt many senior Tories, majority shareholders in UK’s financial giants or board members of London-based multinational corporations, those who rule Britain from behind the façade of democracy, ever wave a union jack or sing the national anthem. Overall, he is considered a friend by some and a foe by others: friendly with European industrialists, corporate financiers and powerful politicians but a foe to the majority of citizens; not so different from his homeland.