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Britain Sleepwalking out of the European Union

by | January 14th, 2013 | 10:37 am
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Last November, the British Labor leader, Ed Milliband, claimed that Britain is “sleepwalking” out of the European Union. Unfortunately, his assessment appears accurate. As discussed in my letter to the Financial Times today, the current British Conservative-Liberal government under Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have no higher aim with regard to Europe than to distance itself from it.

As the euro crisis seems to be approaching a solution, there is no more important foreign policy issue in Europe than Britain’s relationship with the European Union. This is no domestic British question but a foreign policy issue with global implications. The United States has persistently supported the development of the European Union, and US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon has rightly stated that the US interest is for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union.

Poland’s outspoken Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, made the same point in his Blenheim Palace speech last September. He interfered, in his own words, “recklessly in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom,” dismissing all British myths about sufferings imposed upon the country by the European Union. His final salvo was: “Britain is living with false consciousness. Your interests are in Europe. It’s high time for your sentiments to follow.” It is difficult not to agree. Other Western politicians should speak up and concur.

Size matters. As market economics and democracy are spreading throughout the world, economies converge. Then, size increasingly amounts to population. Today, the European Union, with 500 million inhabitants, has only 7 percent of world population, and that share is set to decline rapidly. The United Kingdom accounts for barely 1 percent of global population, which condemns it to insignificance and irrelevance on its own. Washington’s steady complaint is that “there are too many Europeans around the table,” which leads to a US preference for a G-2, where the second party is not the European Union, but China, since the European Union is still unable to speak with one voice.

The British Tory party has already tried international isolation under Cameron by forming a separate group with euroskeptics from Poland and the Czech Republic in the European Parliament. Thus, it has lost its prior great influence in the European People’s Party, the biggest party in the parliament, representing all the mainstream center-right parties. This lesson should have been sufficient.

If the United Kingdom were to have a referendum on its relationship with the European Union and actually depart, it would lose most of its relevance in Europe and with the outside world, notably the United States.

With its departure from the European Union, the United Kingdom would more specifically lose all its influence with the European Union. It would decline to the kind of dependence and high costs of financial contributions that Switzerland and Norway face. Little wonder, that the elites of those two countries want their nations to join the European Union.

A British exit could only be understood as a stab in the back to the European project, so the United Kingdom should not expect any sympathy. Such alienation would in all probability lead to the United Kingdom suffering worse conditions than Switzerland and Norway.  A departing United Kingdom cannot take its access to the much-appreciated single European market as granted.

At present, the European Union is more liberal, i.e., inclined to embrace free markets than ever, with a newly liberal North dominating over a statist South. The United Kingdom can easily tip the balance to the advantage of liberalism, but instead it is preoccupied with its navel-gazing: To be or not to be in the European Union? By diverting its political energy, the United Kingdom renders European Union policies worse from its own point of view, and it alienates its friends in the North, as Sikorski so eloquently explained. Without Britain, the European Union will be more French and statist.

Phil Gordon’s intervention drew attention to the inevitable end of what Winston Churchill named the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. Arguably, it died at Suez in 1956, when the United States intervened against the United Kingdom, France, and Israel in favor of Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, but this myth has died only slowly in conservative British minds. Admittedly President Barack Obama, who had opposed the Iraq war that had been waged by Britain and the United States standing together against much of the rest of the world, has done a great deal to kill the relationship. Britain on its own is not big enough to matter to the United States. British conservatives had better face up to this reality.

Finally, the great Transatlantic project that is seriously discussed is a free trade agreement. If the United Kingdom were to abandon the European Union, such an agreement would be next to impossible to conclude because of years of transition, but such a free trade agreement is a key British objective.

Europe is facing new military threats with instability in North Africa and the Middle East. The United Kingdom and France played a large positive role in Libya, but that role could only succeed with US support. The United States has become reluctant to engage in these conflicts, while having been burnt by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The European Union will need to act on its own, and the main operative forces belong to France and the United Kingdom. With the United Kingdom out, Europe, and the United Kingdom, will face a new military insecurity.

Much is made in Britain about the expense of belonging to the European Union. But what is the actual cost of those UK commitments? The direct net contribution of the United Kingdom to the European Union is barely 0.6 percent of GDP or $13 billion a year. For this, the United Kingdom gets access to the single European market and much more. It sounds like a bargain.

Why would any thinking person want to do something so irrational as taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union? It sounds like the old saw for a young woman on wedding night: “Close your eyes and think of the British Empire!” But those days are history.

David Cameron needs to wake up to his responsibility as British prime minister. He should stand up and say that Britain should integrate more closely with the European Union in its own national interest and forget this absurd idea of a referendum on a more distant British relationship to Europe. More foreign politicians need to tell him in public that this is no internal British matter, but a global threat.