Are the European Union and Britain headed for divorce? Since their relationship started in 1973 with the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), the two have been like a couple who had differences from the start—yet they hoped love would cause their problems to disappear.
The relationship initially seemed like a good idea. Britain, a prosperous country just a one-hour flight from mainland Europe, could benefit from and help increase the political influence and economic prosperity of the entire continent.
What went wrong?
The relationship started out slow and rocky. Following World War II, Europe lay in ruins. Yet because England was digging out after German bombings, the island nation’s involvement on the continent was limited. Aside from providing supplies to West Germany and West Berlin during the Berlin blockade, a desire to return to isolationism and retreat from imperialism defined this era for the British.
When offered to be part of the EEC, an organization formed in 1957 that was designed to connect its European members economically, the Brits refused to take part.
In 1963, when the UK had a change of heart and applied for membership, France was opposed. It was not until 10 years later that the nation finally joined the EEC—but with conditions. The country would have a certain level of autonomy others did not.
As with any hopeful newlyweds, however, each partner thought the other would change.
In 2002, when the UK refused to accept the euro as its national currency and stuck by the pound, Europeans thought Britons would eventually come to see its benefits and join its currency.
But they never did.
During the years, more cracks in the relationship began to show, with both sides bickering about ideology, never able to fully agree. Historically, the UK has been the only nation that has repeatedly moved against the EU to ensure protection of its own interests. Britain opted out of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty—allowing EU citizens to gain voting and immigration rights within member states. Four years later, the UK rebuffed the Schengen Agreement, which promotes open borders for those in the bloc.
Other member countries have not been afforded the same flexibility.
Frustration within the EU deepened in 2007 after Britain became the sole member state to veto the Lisbon Treaty, which moved the bloc closer to military and political integration.
While the EU has continually sought “ever closer union” between member states, Britain’s rejection of this principle has caused dissatisfaction. France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Desir remarked, “One country alone cannot call into question the desire of the others to continue to advance together” (The Guardian).
Others have said likewise. In a press conference, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that while he wants the UK to “remain an active and constructive part of the European Union,” and “not all and everything must be decided in Brussels and by Brussels,” nevertheless, “cherry-picking is not an option.”
The tiresome tit-for-tat disagreements and power struggles that have occurred between the two have culminated in the UK’s 2017 in-out referendum, which will allow Britons to vote on whether the nation will continue as part of the EU. It is the first time British citizens will determine their nation’s membership status by popular vote—and could serve as a final blow to the UK-EU relationship.
Tim Oliver, a Dahrendorf Fellow for Europe-North American relations at the London School of Economics IDEAS, a research center for the study of international affairs and diplomacy, speculated that a British exit could shift the center of power in the EU.
“Eastern Europe could gain over Western Europe, Germany’s position could be enhanced vis-a-vis other states including France, more protectionist minded states could gain from the loss of one of the strongest advocates of free-markets. Combined with a strengthening of the Eurozone, a Brexit [Britain’s exit from the EU] could tip the EU towards even closer union. The alternative also needs to be considered: that a Brexit unleashes centrifugal forces that unravel the EU” (E!Sharp).
As with any struggling marriage, compromise will be required to ensure the partnership works better going forward. Reconciliation is also on the table, although it seems as though it may be more difficult given that both are set in their ways.
With the pending in-out referendum, each side is asking: “Is this partnership worth it anymore or would we be happier without one another? After decades of drifting apart, can—should—this relationship be saved?”
In part, the EU was established to deter war from ever occurring on the continent again. The thought was that if all the nations’ economies were intertwined, then peace would be maintained.
Slowly, though, the European Union began to morph into more of a political, military and social force. Greater regulations came into place. The union continued to drift from its original purpose as a primarily financial institution to encompass all aspects of its member countries’ lives—from controlling fishing waters, to traveling between countries, to dealing with global climate change.
Unlike the rest of the European bloc, however, Britain has always viewed its involvement from a different perspective. The nation wants to ensure that its sovereignty is maintained and, time and again, it has refused to agree to the EU’s terms.
This flexibility is afforded partly due to Britain’s financial contributions to the union. Between 2008 and 2013, its contributions increased from 3 billion pounds ($4.7 billion) to 11 billion pounds ($17.2 billion) per year. This wealth is distributed to poorer countries in the bloc such as Poland and Greece.
The biggest source of contention comes down to finances. Britain wants to see red tape cut from EU trade rules so the bloc can gain more influence globally. It believes that the current system, which requires that billions of dollars be paid in membership fees, is inefficient due to various bureaucratic processes.
Because the nation is the EU’s third-highest contributor of funds (with Germany and France being first and second, and Italy nearly tied with the UK), many Britons feel they deserve more control over the continent’s spending.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Business for Britain Group, which is pushing for EU reforms, said: “Despite [Prime Minister] David Cameron securing a historic EU budget cut, the cost of the EU to UK taxpayers continues to spiral out of control.
“We cannot continue to write bigger and bigger cheques to remain a member of an unreformed and uncompetitive European Union. Business is struggling under mounds of EU red tape and the UK economy is threatened by yet another potential eurozone recession” (Express).
Even if new membership terms are agreed upon, their implementation would extend far beyond a 2017 deadline. Euroskeptic members of Britain’s Parliament say the nation cannot vote based on promises that the EU might later deny it made.
“Political negotiation is done differently on different sides of the English Channel,” The Economist reported. “In Westminster parties threaten, bluster and slap red lines on tables. ‘Non-negotiables’ are brandished. In the end somebody wins. In Brussels negotiation is a silkier business. Forms of words are found, disagreements are smoothed over or conveniently overlooked and compromises brokered. Each side leaves the room with something—or at least feels that way.”
Aiming to preserve membership status while appeasing the needs of his people, Mr. Cameron has set out to procure a deal with the EU that would achieve several key goals for Britain:
Though Mr. Cameron has begun to negotiate these terms, some members of Britain’s Parliament have stressed that the nation needs a stronger voice, including veto power over EU legislation and greater transparency of the EU’s budget.
While it may seem these demands could be easily met, the EU feels it is being blackmailed into agreeing to terms it does not support. A complex governmental body directed from Brussels that works through seven major institutions overseeing 28 member states, the union does not have the luxury of simply making one member happy at the expense of all the others.
Yet over the years, this is exactly what the UK has expected.
“Some of the changes Mr. Cameron has proposed, especially restrictions on tax credits and other in-work benefits for new immigrants, might require changes to EU treaties,” The Economist reported. “Almost no country wants treaty change in the next year or two—it would trigger plebiscites and would open the door to French and Italian demands for stronger social protections, thus making the EU even less Anglo-Saxon. Mr. Cameron might be able to secure concessions that could be inserted into the treaties later on. But Eastern European governments have already warned that freedom of movement is sacred—and removing tax credits from new immigrants could be interpreted as an attack on that freedom.”
The thought of someone telling the EU what to do and then letting a particular country have sovereignty over its own government—and against the concept of greater unity—does not sit well. It runs contrary to everything the union has worked toward accomplishing for the past 50 years.
Of Mr. Cameron’s plan, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told BBC, “The fact that one country believes that one thing is wrong does not mean that we can change because every country might have its own priorities and that may just ruin the European Union.”
The questions could be asked: With such continuous disagreement, why have they not split from each other already? Would the two be better off on their own?
As with any divorce, it is not that simple. There are assets to divide, debts to pay, the future of the European family to consider, and how to move forward amicably.
The eurozone is structured so that if one member state prospers, all others benefit. Take, for example, the 2004 EU Enlargement, which added 10 new member states to the bloc. The move boosted national economies as well as opened up new trade opportunities for the original members.
On the contrary, when one nation falters, all feel it. This is happening with Greece’s bankruptcy crisis, where the financial and economic ripple effects have been felt throughout Europe.
“The European Union remains the UK’s most important export market—half of [Britain’s] trade goes to the single market and around 3.5 million UK jobs are linked to UK exports to EU member states,” BBC reported.
Over the years, their economies have grown increasingly more interdependent, which makes it more difficult for them to part.
“It’s likely that Brexit…would lead to plummeting stock markets and an economic recession, with losses to GDP calculated by the Centre for Economic Performance at up to 9.5%—worse than the 2008 financial crisis,” The Guardian stated.
Put into perspective, this would lower Britain’s GDP by nearly $255 billion.
Parallel to the plummeting economy, there are vast immigration implications for Britain and other EU members if Britain leaves. An Economist article title summed up the problem: “EU exit would turn two million Britons working within the bloc into illegal immigrants, Tory MP claims.”
Without legal right to work within EU member states, all British citizens employed and living abroad would have to gain new citizenship or return home to Britain. So would members of the EU who now live in Britain.
If Britain were to leave the EU, it could also have a domino effect, triggering anti-EU discussions in France as well.
“A Brexit, if it actually happened, could hardly fail to encourage France’s sovereigntists or the far right. Marine Le Pen is already demanding that France leave the euro, or that the Schengen free circulation area be suspended,” The Guardian stated.
Last year, former President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy articulated the UK’s overall importance to the EU in a lecture in Paris: “Without the United Kingdom, Europe would be wounded, even amputated—therefore everything should be done to avoid it.
“But it will survive. Without France, Europe—the European idea—would be dead” (The Local).
On the other hand, there are positives if Britain exits. As the fifth-largest economy in the world, independence would allow the nation to thrive due to more open trade deals and an ability to access the single market, which is currently restricted. It would also be able to increase opportunities for investing outside of EU regulations. Some analysts predict that it could result in Britons saving approximately 1,000 pounds yearly in their budgets since certain membership fees and taxes would be removed.
The move would also give Britain a louder voice in world affairs. It would not be represented alongside a power bloc, but would be better able to speak for itself in international bodies such as the World Trade Organization. Representatives would be able to stand up for the British people and their interests, instead of the collective interests of the continent.
“Returning power from the opaque institutions of the EU to the British Parliament—and to the devolved assemblies—would make politics meaningful again,” The Telegraph stated. “Political debate would no longer be hampered by mega-lobbying, corridor trading and back-room crisis deals in Brussels, but would reflect the views and opinions of the British public. This is the single most important advantage of leaving an unreformed EU: people would be able to vote for a Government that reflects their values and beliefs. Britain’s future would be in Britain’s hands.”
And there are positives for the EU too. Some argue that more worldwide attention would be placed on the continent as a whole instead of Britain and its actions. It would solve the “British question” and mean the removal of a partner that never seemed entirely invested in the relationship.
“The EU faces multiple problems and questions, not least surrounding the future of the Eurozone,” Mr. Oliver wrote in an essay for E!Sharp. “Focusing on Britain runs the risk of creating expectations in Britain that it is the centre of attention. This would not only cause resentment elsewhere but create expectations in Britain that the rest of the EU will not be in a position to fulfil.”
Foreign Policy explained how a Brexit could further the “ever closer union” ideal: “The moment the United Kingdom leaves the EU is also the moment it loses all influence on European economic policymaking. And London would still have to accept most of Brussels’ regulations and standards if it wanted free access to a market of over 400 million well-off European consumers, who currently buy more than 50 percent of all British exports. By leaving, the United Kingdom would also miss out on the free movement of labor, forfeiting the ability to attract many of Europe’s best brains and the ability to take advantage of an influx of low-wage workers from central Europe.”
In addition, some member nations dislike Britain’s opposition to free movement of people and see the country as xenophobic. If Britain were to leave the EU, Europe would no longer have to seek reforms to appease only one member.
“The idea of cutting red tape and deepening the single market will certainly gain traction in Berlin, as will some restrictions on so-called ‘welfare tourism,’” an article by the German Marshall Fund, a foreign policy think tank, stated. “But Berlin will not agree to weaken the free movement of people in the EU. There are also concerns that negotiating treaty amendments without a clear mandate could produce a result that cannot be ratified by all 28 member states. Despite its strong interests to see Britain remain in the European Union, Germany will not cross every line to accommodate Cameron’s wishes.”
According to the BBC, “Chancellor Angela Merkel has reportedly warned David Cameron she would rather see the UK leave the EU than compromise over the principle of free movement.”
Spain feels similarly. The Guardian reported that the country “has no sympathy with the idea of distorting the fundamental principles, such as free movement of people, until they become unrecognisable…”
Each seems vested in holding their ground at the expense of the relationship.
On paper, the two working together in a marriage of convenience should have worked. Both Britain and the European Union want the best for Europe. Both desire economic prosperity and to see the region grow its international clout. Both want its people to have the best opportunities to succeed.
So what is the problem?
A clue can be found in a speech by Mr. Cameron to the British people in which he detailed the reasons for the UK in-out referendum.
“I know that the United Kingdom is sometimes seen as an argumentative and rather strong-minded member of the family of European nations,” he said.
“And it’s true that our geography has shaped our psychology.
“We have the character of an island nation—independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty.
“We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel.”
Mr. Cameron continued: “For all our connections to the rest of the world—of which we are rightly proud—we have always been a European power—and we always will be.
“From Caesar’s legions to the Napoleonic Wars. From the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution to the defeat of Nazism. We have helped to write European history, and Europe has helped write ours.
“Over the years, Britain has made her own, unique contribution to Europe. We have provided a haven to those fleeing tyranny and persecution. And in Europe’s darkest hour, we helped keep the flame of liberty alight. Across the continent, in silent cemeteries, lie the hundreds of thousands of British servicemen who gave their lives for Europe’s freedom.
“In more recent decades, we have played our part in tearing down the Iron Curtain and championing the entry into the EU of those countries that lost so many years to Communism. And contained in this history is the crucial point about Britain, our national character, our attitude to Europe.”
Stop. Reread the previous phrase, “…contained in this history is the crucial point about Britain, our national character, our attitude to Europe.”
It is exactly this character—this “attitude to Europe”—that stops Britain from being able to fully integrate with the other nations of the EU.
Yet there is a reason for this—and it has more to do with their national character than most grasp. This difference of opinion does not merely stem from their own ideologies, but from their historical roots, which have always ensured that a continued union would not be possible.
The book America and Britain in Prophecy contains the reason the union between this particular nation and Europe is not destined to last—and what lies ahead for the ultimate future of both the continent and the island. You will be stunned by what you read.
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