On the 30th of June 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron published an opinion piece in the Telegraph, presenting his thoughts about a possible referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. This piece provoked a lot of commentary from British politicians, as well as from outside the UK. Though the last referendum on membership to the EU held in 1975 was positively decided by a two-to-one majority, this debate is a regular feature of British politics. In October 2011, David Cameron already managed to avoid such a referendum, when a motion backed by 81 conservative MPs was defeated by 483 votes to 111, thanks to the votes of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats – the other party in the government coalition – as well as of the Labour MPs. This biggest rebellion within the Conservative Party since the 1990s surely was a determinant factor in David Cameron’s fierce opposition to the Fiscal Compact in December 2011. The debate resurfaced after another European Summit held on 28-29 June, where Member States agreed on giving the President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy the responsibility to chart a medium to long term comprehensive plan to reform the EU around three building blocks: a banking union, an economic and fiscal union, and a political union. Pressure has increased to hold a referendum in the event that such changes result in a new transfer of powers to the EU.
The article below compiles analyses and comments on the UK-EU relationship, brings insight into the debate on a possible referendum, and presents the Green approach to this issue.
A relationship only blurred by the financial crisis?
Britain has always been the “proud home of euroscepticism”. Among the more virulent eurosceptics are the members of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a party based on the very idea of UK withdrawal from the EU, and led by outspoken MEP Nigel Farage. Tough not represented in the national parliament, this party scored 16.5% in the 2009 European Parliament elections. There are eurosceptics on the benches of the Conservatives for sure, and they are a considerable voice within the membership of the party. With a bit of oversimplification, there are those on the right-wing that criticise the EU for imposing too many norms and regulations, arguing that the UK should be better-off living the Norwegian way, without purposely mentioning that Norway still implements 75% of all EU laws without having a single say on them. And they are the ones in the British left, once anti-European, that have found in the progressive economic model of the EU a promising alternative of the Anglo-Saxon capitalism. But it is worth remembering that Tony Blair opted out of the working time directive and David Cameron recently strengthened regulation over financial services.
The independent but reformist and pro-EU British think-tank Centre for European Reform recently published an interesting analysis of the evolution of “the City of London-UK-EU triangular relationship” since the beginning of the crisis. In this analysis, senior research fellow at CER Philip Whyte opposes the common argument that the UK-EU relationship has deteriorated during the crisis due to the British opposition to any further regulation of financial activities, in order to protect the City of London’s interests. Quite the opposite, Philip Whyte demonstrates that the UK’s regulatory environment for financial services has even become much tougher, reacting to bankruptcies of UK banks such as Northern Rock, and revelations over financial and banking sector such as the recent Libor fixing scandal.
A misunderstanding across the Channel
Instead Philip Whyte points out that relations across the Channel have been blurred by two intertwined factors: increasing euroscepticism in Britain and the crisis in the eurozone.
From the UK perspective, there is a growing consensus that the partnership with the EU should be at least renegotiated, if not completely abandoned. Polls highlighted in the report shows that 47% of the respondents would vote for the renegotiation of the terms of the partnership, in the case of a three option referendum. About 50% of Britons would even be in favour of leaving the EU in case of an in-out referendum, which seems less likely to be the question asked by the government in case of a referendum.
On the continent, the UK is perceived more as a ball and chain than as a trustful partner. Though it stands outside the Eurozone, the UK has pushed forward for closer integration among Eurozone members to solve the crisis – measures that the UK would never agree on for itself. It has opposed participation in the bail outs of Greece and Portugal, arguing that the UK already is highly indebted, and doesn’t share the common currency anyway, so is not expected to join such acts of solidarity. Last but not least, the UK is accused of seizing the opportunity of the crisis to repatriate powers from Brussels rather than helping Europe to sort out of the crisis.
In any case, it is worth mentioning that the UK has already been an utilitarian player in the EU sometimes leading to confusion, as this analysis by VoteWatch Europe reveals. It sought joining the former EEC to get benefits from the Internal Market. It cleverly negotiates opt outs and exemptions whenever EU law touches on its interests. In the Council, UK representatives only vote in favour if they are sure they want to carry through with a proposal, points out Piotr Kaczyński, head of programme at the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Another insightful report by The Economist’s political editor David Rennie for the Centre for European Reform, entitled “The continent or the open sea – Does Britain have a European future?” presents the particularities of the British position on Europe, and gives an overview of its eurosceptic history. The author – who is doubtless about both the possibility of a future referendum in the UK and inevitable new delegations of powers to the EU required for Eurozone members to solve the crisis – lays down an ambitious programme for the UK in a two-speed Europe. According to Rennie, loosening ties with the EU does not necessarily mean tagging along with the EU. Among his proposals are developing closer relations with Germany as the new leading member of the EU and more pragmatic ally than France; engaging in even closer scrutiny of EU legislation adopted by the House of Commons; and taking the lead in enhanced-cooperation in the field of more liberalisation of the single market, instead of relying on other non-Eurozone members that appeared not trustful allies for the UK during the negotiation of the Fiscal Compact in December 2011. Tomas Valasek from the same Centre for European Reform reveals that falling short in putting concrete alternatives for non-Eurozone members on the EU agenda could place the UK in an even more insulated position, while no longer being able to rely on its traditionally more liberal Central European partners.
Even the leading British eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe has identified no other option than to remain a member of the EU. Asking the question “is EU membership still the best option for UK trade?”, the authors analyse four alternative – the status quo, the Norwegian option, the Swiss option and the Turkish option – to finally concludes that “from purely a trade perspective, EU membership remains the best option for the UK. All the alternatives come with major drawbacks and would all (...) require negotiation with and the agreement of the other member states, which would come with unpredictable political and economic risks”.
Seizing the opportunity of a referendum to reform the EU – the Green approach
According to figures cited by David Rennie, two thirds of UK citizens are unhappy with the current terms of the UK’s membership to the EU – either they want to leave or achieve a simple free trade relationship. Seizing the opportunity of a referendum to have a full debate on the EU and to come up with reforms to enhance democratic legitimacy and efficiency of its institutions and policies is an optimistic position. Sharing some frustration with British citizens with regards to their relationship with the EU, the Green Party of England and Wales leader Caroline Lucas hold this discourse, as well as former Labour cabinet minister and European Commissioner Lord Mandelson. The England and Wales Greens are traditionally more cautious about the EU than other European Greens. During the debate on a motion asking for a referendum on UK’s membership put forward by eurosceptic MPs in October 2011, Caroline Lucas explained that she voted for the referendum because she wanted to achieve a “radical reform of the EU” to “change its direction, away from an obsessive focus on competition and free trade and towards placing genuine co-operation and environmental sustainability at its heart”. If such a referendum takes place, one should not overlook fighting back arguments about purely and simply leaving the EU, since lots of them are misleading and oversimplified, as EU blogger Jon Worth intelligently emphasised. It is definitely not sure whether the “comprehensive audit” of EU powers and their impact on the UK promised by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague will meet the challenge of emphasising the pros and cons that could provide elements for a healthy debate.
- The Telegraph, David Cameron: We need to be clear about the best way of getting what is best for Britain
- PressEurope, What is Cameron’s EU strategy?
- The Guardian, Britain, proud home of euroscepticism
- The Telegraph, The time will never be right for David Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU
- PressEurope, Living the Norwegian way
- Centre for European Reform, Britain, Europe and the City of London: can the triangle be managed?
- Centre for European Reform, The continent or the open sea – Does Britain have a European future?
- Centre for European Reform, What Central Europe thinks of Britain and why
- Open Europe, Trading places: is EU membership still the best option for UK trade?
- EurActiv, Council voting: Who are the EU hardliners and "yes men"?
- Jon Worth’s blog, What would leaving the EU actually mean in practice?
- BBC, William Hague launches full “audit” of EU law and the UK
Cameron thinks he has protected the city financial institutions but closer ties in the EU will erect a wall against UK finance and the institutions may well move to the EU for trade.