Shortly after the Brexit vote, a French diplomat was quoted as saying,
Before, Britain had one foot in and one foot out. Now, they have one foot out and one foot in.
Ironic truth. To me, it is crystal clear that the European Union needs the UK, but not as a member – as a friend. Dear Britons, I am so glad you voted to leave – and I am also glad that you’re not going very far. You’ll still be there, just over the channel, playing in our back yard, vacationing in our sunny climes (unless that changes – global warming, you know…), and enjoying our food and wine.
Not only that, you’ll still be trading with us, fighting by our side – at least some of the time, and probably even welcoming Polish plumbers.
It’s been a while since I promised to explain why I think the European Union is better off without the UK. At one point, I thought – it’s not necessary, just refer people to Michel Rocard’s article in The Guardian from 2014. The late French political thought leader and I came to the same conclusions independently – something that flatters my ego a bit, I must admit – but there’s a need to tell this story as I see it.
How the UK Sabotaged the EU
Back when I was in grade 11, our history teacher assigned us each little research projects. Mine was about the “Common Market.” My report stated that this new Common Market – created in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome – was made up of six countries (France, Germany, Italy, and the BeNeLux countries) that had formed an alliance to use economic integration as the first step toward an avowed aim of political integration. A “United States of Europe,” I said in my report, which also said that the idea was to make the economies of Europe so totally interdependent that another war in Europe would become impossible.
The Common Market was faced with a competing model for European co-operation, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), whose members at the time were Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. They were known as the “Outer Seven” as opposed to the Common Market’s “Inner Six.” The EFTA were only interested in free trade, and disdained the political project of the Common Market. Hold onto that thought.
The UK had been invited to join the inner six, but declined. According to Jean Monet, one of the architects of the Common Market,
I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change.
It was, after all, Winston Churchill who had proposed a “United States of Europe” in 1946.
Jump ahead to 1961, when Britain, its economy faltering, asks to join the nascent European Community, only to be rejected twice by France’s veto. President Charles de Gaulle said that Britain had a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction, and was more interested in links with the US than with Europe. They finally got in in 1973. De Gaulle was out of office in France, and Edward Heath was in in Britain.
In 1984, Margaret Thatcher negotiated what is known as “The UK Rebate.” Mrs. Thatcher meant what she said when she proclaimed “I want my money back,” and she got it. To be fair, there were inequities in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that meant Britain paid out much more than its fair share to Europe – but Thatcher managed to get a whopping 66% rebate from Europe, and that rebate remains in effect today, despite changes in the CAP that have brought more European income to UK agriculture. Today, it would also be fair to say that the UK is not paying its fair share, and David Cameron wanted to blackmail the EU so that he’d have to pay even less.
Four years later, in Bruges, Mrs. Thatcher upped the anti-Europe rhetoric, proclaiming against “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” This speech has been the basis of much of the negative sentiment against Europe in the UK and elsewhere.
Philippe Bernard, London correspondent for Le Monde, has written that for a quarter of a century, the British press, led by the tabloids, are
Anti-European, xenophobic and popular… [they] militate daily against Europe, multiply untruths, and attribute all the woes of the country to Brussels. In this phantasmagoric landscape where Brussels decides on the size of condoms and prohibits kettles with too much power, the Second World War, the image of “England, resisting alone,” and anti-German sentiment occupy a surprisingly large place.
During the recent Brexit campaign, 82% of articles on the EU in the British press have been hostile. Dr. Oliver Daddow, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Nottingham, has observed that the dominance of Euroscepticism in the British press,
which began in the later 1980s and accelerated through the 1990s and beyond – has strongly influenced the ways in which UK politicians think about what is achievable in their European policies, as well as what is desirable in the first place. A ‘climate of fear’ from press backlashes has meant that UK governments have been increasingly unwilling to devise, implement and publicise pro-European initiatives.
The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 created the European Union and set as an objective that all EU members eventually adopt the Euro. John Major obtained an opt-out. Britain is the only EU member country in this situation.
The treaty also included a “social chapter,” providing basic social rights to all European citizens. Again, Major obtained an opt-out, though Tony Blair later rescinded that one.
Expansion: a cultural weapon
On May 1, 2004, the largest expansion in the history of the European Union took place, with the addition of eight Central and Eastern European (former Soviet bloc) countries and two Mediterranean countries. This expansion happened very quickly, as a reaction to the fall of the Soviet Union – a totally unexpected windfall for the UK’s subversion of the EU political and social process.
At exactly that time, the EU was debating the question of deeper integration vs. expansion. Many EU members wanted to implement important structural changes before adding new countries to the Union. Not the UK, however. The UK insisted on the continuation of unanimous decision-making, even as it advocated rapid expansion to the east.
This was a calculated manoeuvre. UK leaders understood that the former East Bloc countries were culturally very different from the Western European countries that had formed the core of the European Union to date. They also knew that these countries wanted strong defence ties to the United States, to guaranty their independence from a resurgent Russia in the future. The combination of an increased number of countries, different cultural values, and the requirement for unanimity guaranteed political paralysis.
While it would be foolish to blame the UK alone for this turn of events, it is fair to say that the UK was a major instigator in that direction, and helped turn the EU, in Michel Rocard’s words, into “an economic giant, a political dwarf.”
When the size of the Union made it obvious that subjects such as foreign policy, defence, and justice needed to be addressed on a community-wide level, the UK did all it could to ensure that joint actions and policies be limited to a very few, very narrowly circumscribed issues.
Although the UK opted out from the Euro, it wanted to be involved in writing the rules for its adoption. In doing so, it secured a privileged place for its financial market, the City of London, compared to other financial operators in Europe. Personally, I do not weep to see them lose this, after Brexit.
In the same vein, when questions of harmonizing fiscal and monetary policy were raised, in order to render the Euro a truly viable currency, the UK was among the first to veto such actions (remember – unanimity means one country out of 28 – no matter how big or how small – can axe anything).
Once more, it would be unjust to put all the blame on the UK for this – Germany especially is co-responsible on this one – but the UK did all it could to undermine community efforts to find common ground and common policies.
Get Out and Get What You Want
So, dear Britons, please get out quickly. You’ve done enough damage. Let the rest of us get on with it. I said, in a comment to my last post, that
The EU is, in my view, despite many, many missteps, still the most interesting political experiment going on on the face of this planet.
I stand by that statement. We will not recover from the damage done by the UK in a week, a month, or even a few years – but we will recover. We’ll also make our own messes of it, for sure. The UK is not the only major problem for the EU, and it would be foolishly naive to think so. But Brexit will cure one of them and I, for one, am happy about that.
If you’re British and you suspect maybe I don’t care for you folks, please understand this is nothing personal. I like you just fine, and I enjoy visiting the UK despite the weather. I want to keep you as friends. The European Union needs the UK:
- As a trading partner
- As a defence ally
So how do we do this?
Remember the EFTA? It still exists! I was surprised to learn this, as I had been led to believe it disbanded a few years ago. Most of the original members of EFTA are now EU members, but EFTA includes important European countries like Norway and Switzerland, along with major players like Iceland and Liechtenstein. The UK, as a founding nation, could surely rejoin and take a leading role. EFTA maintains trade relationships with the EU (except for Switzerland, which has its own bilateral treaties). The UK will need to accept the free movement of people as well as goods, just like any other trading partner in Europe, but they’ll survive.
This speaks directly to national (and international) need. Europe needs defending. The only European countries with credible armies are France and the UK. Obviously, they need to work together – as they do already in the Airbus consortium (which has a military branch as well as civil aviation).
The UK is tied to most of Western Europe via NATO in any case, so this one should be easy. What might become harder, but is absolutely necessary in today’s climate, is the sharing of databases on terrorist activity and related subjects, where armies are less involved and police are in the forefront.
And oh yes – you might get a friendlier response if your press stopped lying about us quite so much…
Sources for this Article
- Le « Brexit » n’aura pas lieu by Arnaud Leparmentier – Le Monde, 25/06/2016
- La presse britannique vote « Brexit » by Philippe Bernard – Le Monde, 23/06/2016
- A French message to Britain: get out of Europe before you wreck it by Michel Rocard – The Guardian, 06/06/2014
- The European Free Trade Association – official site
- European Free Trade Association – Wikipedia article
- Britain and the EU: A long and rocky relationship – BBC recap, 01/04/2014
- Enlargement of the European Union – Wikipedia article
- The UK media, euroscepticism and the UK referendum on EU membership by Dr. Oliver Dadow, 29/02/2016, in The UK in a Changing World, King’s College London