Is Britain Leaving Europe?
December 14, 2011
At an EU summit meeting in Brussels, December 8 and 9, Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron provoked a fury by vetoing a planned new EU treaty imposing tighter fiscal discipline on euro members to help resolve the debt crisis in the eurozone and prevent its recurrence. Cameron’s lone stand led some observers to ask whether Britain’s days in the European Union are now numbered—although Cameron insists that the United Kingdom will remain a full and committed EU member.
Q1: How did Britain become so isolated at the summit?
A1: Germany wanted all 27 members to sign a new EU treaty enacting stricter budgetary rules in exchange for German willingness to help alleviate the eurozone crisis, which Berlin believes to have been largely caused by fiscal laxity in predominantly Mediterranean euro countries.
Britain fears such a pact would lead, among other things, to new restrictions on financial services in the City of London, Europe’s financial capital, which account for 10 percent of the UK economy. Britain is also hostile to any new deal, such as the “fiscal union” supposed to be enshrined in the new treaty, which might mean further surrenders of national sovereignty to the European Union and closer economic and political integration with the rest of Europe.
Cameron accordingly said he would not agree to the new treaty unless he received specific guarantees safeguarding London’s status as an international financial center. France and Germany refused his request, so Cameron vetoed the proposal that the new pact should be a 27-nation EU treaty.
Most of the 26 other EU members, led by France and Germany, decided to proceed instead with an intergovernmental “fiscal compact” outside the EU framework. Many expressed anger with Britain for allegedly sabotaging efforts to rescue the euro, of which the United Kingdom is not a member. The outcome turned the tables on the legendary British newspaper headline: “Fog in Channel: Continent Isolated.” Some analysts concluded, either sadly or joyfully, that Britain had set itself on a path leading to ultimate withdrawal from the European Union.
Q2: What was the reaction in Britain?
A2: Initial opinion polls showed broad support for Cameron’s stand against an apparent threat of further intrusion by Brussels into British affairs. The many, increasingly powerful euroskeptics in Cameron’s Conservative Party were thrilled that a prime minister had at last said a decisive “no” to Europe. Opponents, including the opposition Labour Party attacked Cameron for a disastrous negotiating strategy and, in the end, failing to achieve his objective of protecting the City of London.
Labour and others accused Cameron of succumbing to the demands of euroskeptic Conservative members of Parliament, rather than putting the country’s interests first. Jonathan Powell, an ex-chief of staff to former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, wrote that, with his “catastrophic decision,” Cameron had turned his back on the Continent and betrayed 200 years of history in which Britain had “expended enormous efforts to maintain a leadership role in Europe.” But the Labour assault was weakened by the refusal of party leaders to say whether they, too, would have wielded the veto in the same circumstances.
Perhaps more importantly, Cameron’s action has caused huge tensions in the coalition government in which his Conservatives share power with the smaller Liberal Democrat Party, which is Britain’s most pro-European party and has even advocated UK euro membership in the past. Liberal Democrat leaders, however, said that despite their disapproval of Cameron’s stance they would remain in the coalition.
Q3: Why is Britain so hostile to European integration?
A3: There are strong cultural and historical reasons why Britain (and particularly England, the United Kingdom’s biggest component) regards the Continent with suspicion. Protected by its island status, Britain has avoided much Continental strife over the centuries (though not in the twentieth century), and has developed its own unique political institutions and social attitudes, together with a sense that the British are different from other Europeans and more independent minded.
The point about Britain’s leadership role in Europe made above by Jonathan Powell needs further refinement. Britain has not historically sought Continental leadership; rather, it has fought to prevent another major, hostile power—normally France or Germany—from gaining that leadership and uniting the Continent against the United Kingdom.
As a maritime power, Britain’s traditional priority has been freedom to trade and forge links with the wider world, especially the English-speaking nations far from Europe. The United Kingdom now conducts half of its trade with Europe. But Britons have a deep antipathy toward utopian and ideological thinking, which they believe leads to dangerous phenomena such as communism and Nazism, and which some think is reflected in dreams of European unification.
For the six original EU members—France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—the postwar drive for European unity was a magnificent and noble enterprise, evocative of a phoenix rising from the ashes of World War II. The United Kingdom, which joined later, felt that, because of the loss of its imperial power, it had been forced into an organization it deeply distrusted. British EU entry was not a triumph, but a huge comedown. Most Britons highly cherish national sovereignty and think trade is far more important than fancy European institutions. They instinctively rebel at “being told what to do by foreigners.”
As a result, Britain has never in the postwar period managed to establish a relationship with the Continent in which Britons feel truly comfortable. Cameron, for example, consistently stresses the importance of the single market, but not the more political aspects of closer EU integration. Whereas many in Europe, including in Berlin and Brussels, see the solution to the euro crisis as “more Europe, not less,” many Britons, and particularly Conservatives, believe it should be the other way around.
Q4: So what happens next?
A4: The British veto has opened a huge can of worms. Cameron insists that Britain remains an integral member of the European Union, whose treaties continue to bind all 27 members and cannot be superseded by the new “compact.” Britain also says that “compact” members cannot make use of EU institutions, such as the European Commission, Parliament, and Court of Justice—a position endorsed by numerous EU legal experts—although this is precisely what Germany, for example, wants.
So big uncertainties surround the legal basis for the “fiscal union,” its authority to take action, the fields in which it will operate, and indeed the final number of member countries. It will not be at all easy for 26 countries, with widely differing views of the new fiscal union’s goals, to negotiate the details of the arrangement by their self-set March deadline and persuade their parliaments to approve it.
Ironically, while Germany wanted to keep Britain inside the process, France hoped to create a smaller, more tightly knit circle of countries, based on the 17-member eurozone, in which, together with Germany, it could exercise greater influence. French president Nicolas Sarkozy was not aiming for a 26-nation mishmash, including euro members, nonmembers, and future members.
For Britain, the critical question will be whether the new “compact” creates a coherent bloc that begins to act like the European Union without the United Kingdom and imposes unwanted new policies on Britain in areas that are vital to its interests. If the new entity treats Britain badly, it will reinforce the arguments of those calling for a UK exit from the European Union altogether. Many EU countries do not want such a separation from Britain, which they see as a valuable proponent of open markets and a counterweight to Franco-German dominance.
Whatever role the new bloc plays, however, the clash at the summit has made it more likely that Britain will once again reexamine, and possibly attempt to renegotiate, its relationship with its European partners. That would create a whole new range of problems and bad feelings—and would still be unlikely to result in a satisfactory new deal for Britain. Cross-channel tensions dating back hundreds of years will not be resolved in the foreseeable future.
Reginald Dale is a senior fellow of the Europe Program and director of the Transatlantic Media Network at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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