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UK’s ambiguous relationship with the EU

par Julia Clavel, double diplômée de Sciences Po et de l'ESCP

· Europe

Though this is not a historical essay, the ambiguous relationship that bounds the United Kingdom and the European Union is not fresh news.

Indeed, from the start, it seems as if the island wasn’t sure of where to stand regarding this recently born Union. It should not be forgotten that one of the leaders of the project of a European union was Winston Churchill, as when he talked about the "iron curtain" in 1946, he offered as a solution to that issue, the creation of the United States of Europe - in his Zurich’s speech, widely inspired by Victor Hugo’s ideas. Though he was a fervent believer in that project, already he underlined the fact that the UK shouldn’t be part of it. The former Prime Minister seemed to consider that his country was the last European one to have the power and the influence to stand alone on the international stage, having to play the role of stabilising factor and to defend its own interests (economics but also diplomatic, in particular with the Commonwealth), different from the rest of Europe.

Standing aside from the European construction

This position of standing aside, this discomfort the UK feels toward the EU is indeed anchored in two hard-rooted ideas, which still fuel the mistrust of the country’s leaders in the European institutions today.


First, there is some remaining pride about English “exceptionalism”, the small island having managed to play an international role all throughout its history, despite having very few internal resources - geologically, in terms of agriculture, etc. Its memory of an Empire on which “the sun never sets” is still very vivid, incarnated in the Commonwealth. This is particularly true right after World War II, which means at the very beginning of European integration, where it had kind of hold the fort on its own, before the United States actually joined the war.

Secondly, the “special relationship” linking the United Kingdom (UK) to the United States has always played a major role in the UK’s perception of itself, of its allegiances and of its role on the world stage.

Also, we might add that the fact that the UK never had a written constitution and that the common law is essentially based on case law may explain part of why the country is so reluctant to accepting supranational treaties that seem very binding.

Consequently, the first stages of European construction did happen without the UK. The European Economic Community, EEC, was founded by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, a treaty the UK didn’t sign on the basis, noted above, that its horizons where beyond the European continent.

However, the strategy didn’t pan out and after a brief attempt of counter European integration by the creation in 1960 of the European Free-Trade Association (EFTA), the UK decided it was time to join the EEC, and so the first request for membership was registered in 1961. Charles de Gaulle, President of the French Republic, vetoed British membership twice, in 1963, then again in 1967, officially on the grounds that it was hostile to European integration, and unofficially trying to preserve the France/Germany couple he valued more and keep out what he identified as an American Trojan horse. The UK had to wait for Pompidou to come in power in France to finally join the EEC that it didn’t want to enter at first, in 1973.

A very awkward relationship that didn’t end there

"It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it", Roy Jenkins, 1875.

This settles the basis for a very awkward relationship that didn’t end there and turned out not to be only a matter of the elites. Indeed, in 1975, a referendum was organized to make sure the Britons were actually supporting the adhesion, since it was already the subject of heated debates. Just over 67% of voters supported the Labour government's campaign to stay in the EEC. The “Yes” vote, by more than two to one, should have settled matters, and the Home Secretary at the time, Roy Jenkins, commented the results by saying: "It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it.". History did prove him wrong and it wasn’t long until the UK membership became a problem again.

One of the first major problems the UK faced regarding Europe was linked to its budget, arguing that the common agricultural policy was too big a part of it, when they were not receiving a lot of money from the programme because of the size of their own agriculture.

Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime minister in 1979, had in that matter one of the most famous quote of the European integration when she said, “I want my money back”, threatening to veto any additional spending. The "iron lady" finally obtained the “British rebate” in 1984, which means that two-third of the British contribution’s surplus was to be assumed by other member States. Margaret Thatcher’s difficulties with Europe probably best encapsulated the ambiguities of those who felt that Britain’s former “imperial” role, part of its “exceptionalism” and its present, and supposedly special relationship meant that it was not just another member of the European Union but, somehow, should be treated differently.

It is that difficulty that the Treaty of Maastricht tried to solve in 1992 by introducing the well-known “opt-out”, which allows the country to not be part of some EU policies, and not be the subject of its legislations. Even more ambiguous, the UK later obtained another possibility, more than an “opt-out”, an “opt-in”, meaning the possibility to choose à la carte which decisions it wanted to be a part of, after a simple demand to the Council and its unanimous vote.

The economic misunderstanding between the European Union and the United Kingdom has kept going, though facing an interesting shift in the past decade. In the 70’s, the British political left used to find the EEC too “capitalist”. Today, both France and Germany seem to distrust the UK that became to their eyes the bridgehead of a deregulated financial sector where the City plays a big role.

This partly explains why Britain’s issues are not specific to the Tories. Contrary to what is often thought, there is, and certainly has been, a long tradition of left-wing opposition to Europe. This is based on the notion that it is essentially a “rich man’s club”, meant to protect capitalism, as previously evocated. Also, the notion of the “free-born Englishman” defending “traditional rights” and standing up to threats to his liberties, both internal and external, is one of those myths that have empowered the British working class movement. European Union is often considered as such a threat to their liberties. This issue is one of the reason why the Labour Party is now beginning to face some of the same difficulties that have plagued the conservative for some time.

A schizophrenic relationship with the Union

All throughout its history, the UK indeed seems to have had an almost schizophrenic relationship with the Union, a feature that you can probably encounter in other members of the European Union, but not too such a high degree.

On the one side stands the constant temptation of retreating, withdrawing from the Union claiming the importance of national sovereignty and denunciating the “super European State”. The government indeed seems to be constantly trying to give pledges of its commitment to preventing the birth of a European Union with State features. The existence of “opt in” and “opt out” answer to that concern.

However on the other side we witness a much more pragmatic attitude towards EU’s concrete policies and the usefulness of the European Union (EU), not to sometimes say its necessity, in some matters. As an example, the UK has always proven to be a fervent supporter of the deepening of the single market, even though the decisions regarding the single market are adopted by a qualified majority that goes against the idea of national sovereignty. Also, the UK, along with France, was one of the first to engage in a European Security and Defence Policy during the Saint-Malo Summit in 1998. More recently, it called for more European regulation regarding energy and climate change.

The topic is today particularly relevant as David Cameron, present UK’s Prime Minister, said to be somehow euro-sceptical, believes Britain's membership of the EU can only be stabilised by agreeing a "new settlement" in which some powers would be repatriated from Brussels back to London. In 2013, the Tory Prime Minister promised that a national referendum would be organized before 2017 if he was to be re-elected in 2015, asking the very simple question of either a renegotiated agreement with Brussels or leaving the Union. The new Europe David Cameron is willing to shape would be a lot more geared towards the Single Market and the economy overall, and more of a mean than an end. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, claimed his disagreement saying that a never-ending discussion with the European Union would be counter-productive and would go against national interests, as it would affect growth and employment, country’s top priorities.

"A never-ending discussion with the European Union would be counter-productive and would go against national British interests".

Leaving the EU, a bad move for both the UK and the EU?

As far as I am concerned, leaving the EU would be a very bad move, for the EU sure, but for the UK just as much, not to say more.

To begin with, Britain would definitely notice an immediate difference on the diplomatic stage. If it would probably retain its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it would lose its membership of the quartet (made of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the EU), which is the internationally recognised body for negotiating in the Middle East, just to give an example.

Britain is sure still an economical power of some importance and would therefore be able to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries, without having to depend on the European Trade Commissioner. However, these negotiations would be entered by a country of 62 millions people, and not by a member of a 500 millions people strong bloc. The UK now accounts for a little less than 1% of the world population and around 3% of the global income (GDP), those numbers having the general tendency to go shrinking. If the EU only represents 7% of the world population, its GDP comes up to 24%. It does make a difference.

3,5 millions jobs could be at risk if Britain was to leave the EU.

An internal player, the Britain in Europe pressure group, set up in 1999 to lay the ground for British membership of the euro, claimed that 3,5 millions jobs could be at risk if Britain was to leave the EU. 3,5 being the number of jobs directly involved in, or related to, British trade with the EU. It could be argued that those jobs would not disappear, as the UK would continue to trade with its European partners nonetheless. True, but the terms of trade would change. Indeed, leaving the Union would mean British firms would face new tariffs and overseas investors, who see Britain as the "gateway" to the single market, might take their investments elsewhere. Very representative of that is this quote extracted for a Chinese government-controlled newspaper, The Global Times, from the time when David Cameron visited China in 2013: "The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study."

If finance professionals may sometimes not be the EU’s most faithful supporters, industrials and entrepreneurs seem to say differently. As a matter of fact, when the Confederation of British Industry surveyed its members in 2013, it found overwhelming support for Britain to stay in the EU among all size businesses: 78% wanted to stay versus only 10 per cent wanting to quit.

The particular position of the UK as source of complexity

Beyond that, the constant threatening of leaving the EU and its incapacity to fully commit to the Union, even if it is to reform it, considerably lessens the capacity of the UK to interfere with the integration progress or to influence either the legislation or the conduct of European policies. In particular, the “opt out” have come with a condition that requires that if the UK ends up deciding it wants to join a common policy of the EU, it has to implement all the acquis communautaire already in place and on which he had no voice, no leverage, as it was once the case for Schengen.

This situation is also problematic for the EU as a group as the specific requirements of the UK only makes its structure and its working more complicated, the EU’s complexity being paradoxically one of the subject of complain of the UK.

One thing therefore sure is that this position of the UK having one foot in and one foot out is not sustainable or viable any longer. This is neither for the EU, nor for the UK itself.

If it can’t be argued that the European Union has not only made wise choices over its history, it has been explained above that the UK leaving the EU would probably not be the smartest choice either.

In my opinion, and even if it might seem a tiny bit paradoxical, if the integration may have occurred too soon, or too quickly, it has gone too far to be pull back now. With a common currency for 18 countries, some kind of political integration had to happen at some point or the other, and the fact that some countries such as the UK are still backing down doesn’t serve the Union very well. The impossibility of the alliance to speak with a common voice on most matters only discredits the Union, and doesn’t bring any good to anyone. The appointment of the British Catherine Ashton as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has something ironical when you know that the UK is today one of the most reluctant member State to an enlargement of that same policy.

It is not the question of Britons becoming the biggest supporters of European federalism all of a sudden of course, but rather that political leaders of the country take their responsibilities as part of a fully-fledged Member State, and start defending the benefits of their membership to their citizens, rather than only underlying its downsides. It seems to me like the only way for the European Union to keep going forward, towards more efficiency, and for the UK to be truly, and somehow legitimately, able to bend European legislations to their needs, is for the country to finally stop wondering to what extent it is a member and finally be in for good.

Cet article a été écrit initialement au printemps 2014.

Les opinions et interprétations exprimées dans les publications engagent la seule responsabilité de leurs auteurs, dans le respect de l'article 3 des statuts de l'Institut Open Diplomacy et de sa charte des valeurs.

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