The United Kingdom is trying to get itself out of the clutches of what it believes will be a uniting Europe. Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum to the British people by 2017 on whether or not they wished to remain a member of the European Union. He may give them one as early as next year.
Britain has been a member of the European Union and its predecessor organization since 1972.
The negotiations on this, now fully joined after months of a phony war, are highly technical — lawyers’ and diplomats’ work. But at root, this is a move with very large implications, as much for the other members as for the UK.
The British government’s approach has been to declare that the issue needs a negotiation. If in talks with his fellow European heads of government, Cameron can obtain a series of changes that loosen the UK-EU relationship, he would recommend, and campaign for, a “Yes” to remaining a member in the coming referendum.
It’s clear he wants to stay in. Business people, the Conservatives’ most loyal allies, are largely in favor, as are other main parties — the press (probably), the unions, the upper ranks of the civil service, the universities and, not the lightest weight on the scales, the United States of America. But he has a large number of people in his party, and a few in his cabinet, who would prefer to get out.
So, it seems, do millions of Brits: Polls presently show that opinion is more or less evenly balanced. Cameron needs to show that he has convinced the EU to change so that continued membership will appear to be a lighter weight to bear, with fewer affronts to national sovereignty than in the past.
Hardest for Cameron — but perhaps most important to his public — would be to change a founding principle of the European Union, that everyone must be treated equally everywhere. This is especially dear to those countries, mainly former communist-bloc states like Poland, Romania, Czech Republic and others, whose workers come to Britain in large numbers because of its relatively low unemployment.
He has put up four areas in which change must come, to placate the grumpy British lion. There must be an explicit recognition that the euro is not the only European currency. Red tape must be cut. The UK must be excused from the clause that commits EU members to “an ever closer union.” And immigrants to the UK from other EU member states won’t get work — or out-of-work — benefits for four years.
In talks earlier this week in Brussels — the first nitty-gritty gathering on the issue, where fellow heads of government actually focused on the UK’s pesky demands — Cameron did quite well. Everyone said they wanted to keep Britain in, were prepared to compromise and would have some ideas by February, when the leaders meet again.
So he might get what he wants, a result that he could, with not too much spin, present to his colleagues and to the electorate as a substantial shift. The vote — there’s a lot of “don’t knows” in the present polling — may go for staying in. Yet if it does, the consequences would be more momentous for the EU than if Britain voted to leave.
For it would mean that the UK — the union’s second- biggest economy, a nuclear power, U.N. Security Council member, major military power — would be in Europe only conditionally. Britain would enjoy the economic benefits, but remain unambiguously attached to its own parliament and laws, scorning any efforts to form a European state.
As such, it would constitute a pole of attraction for other states if the euro does not recover momentum; if Greece returns to crisis; if another state joins Greece in the critical ward; if migrant flows build up once more.
In a post on the website of the International Financing Review, the former Italian diplomat and commentator Antonio Armellini argues that the British demand can only be accommodated by creating an explicitly divided Europe. Britain, and others who don’t want to join the euro, would “share the basic principles of democratic representation, market economy and fundamental rights,” while those in the eurozone proceed to a closer unity. The euro’s survival, he writes, “is inextricably linked to the ability of its members to agree on an appropriate form of supranational economic governance, on which all the other arrangements for members and non-members will ultimately depend.”
It’s an idea whose time, many more than Armellini believe, has come. But the challenge it poses to those who, in the eurozone, are presumed by Armellini to want ever closer union is enormous. It would mean European ministers of economy, of internal affairs, of defense and much more laying down the law and practice for the European Union, overriding the governments of the national capitals.
Like the last round in a high-stakes poker game, it would call those who remain playing to show their hands, and to judge who is bluffing. It would show which countries, and which political parties and leaderships, are willing to jump into the unknown, abandon what real power they have and commit themselves, and their electorates, to the building of a new nation.
The British have owned up. They have implicitly admitted that they are cautious, pragmatic and insular. They like their own political arrangements best, whether or not they like their politicians. If the other European leaders find a way of keeping the UK in, and the referendum vote goes for remaining a (semi-detached) member, the EU would have to live with a very large cuckoo in its uneasy nest. Much more, its member states’ leaders would finally have to put to their people the prospect of being governed by those they regard as foreigners. Nothing technical about this: It would be the time when an enormous political transformation would have to be embarked upon – or shirked.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.