Britain and the EU - Divided by a Channel or a deep blue sea?

21 November 2012
Michael Burnett (External authors)

"It's possible at the moment to be frustrated in equal measure by both unrealistic attitudes to the EU in the UK and by the fact that some in the EU are trying to blame Britain for the inability to find solutions to the eurozone crisis.

What's behind these attitudes, which are leading to what could be a dangerous slide to what Graham Avery called 'unintended exit' from the EU?

In this article I want to both explain UK attitudes to continental European member states and why there are real issues to address to ensure that they do not lead to a rupture – unless this is really intended by both parties.

UK attitudes

It's impossible to ignore the deep-rooted causes of British Euroscepticism. And working in a European environment, I've often had to explain to puzzled continental European colleagues why Britain is so Eurosceptic.

Three reasons are of key significance to the explanation for British Euroscepticism.

Firstly, the largely unchallenged influence of largely Eurosceptic newspapers – both broadsheet (such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times) and tabloids (such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail and the Sun).

Secondly, to put it diplomatically, a historic legacy of underestimation in UK government circles of the impact of European developments (of which the original European Communities Act was the most striking), consequent failure to explain this impact to UK voters, and the resultant perception – rightly or wrongly – on their part of having been misled. It certainly can, at least, be argued to result from a misunderstanding of a different political system, one, for example, in which the authority of the judiciary is often more important than the sovereignty of parliament.

Thirdly, a long-term strategic failure by the UK to understand the very necessary politics of coalition and alliance-building in achieving aims in the European arena and consequent failure to achieve our aims, leading to the idea that we are always the victims of European decisions and not the beneficiaries.

As importantly, there has been a failure of those in the UK who see the benefits of EU membership to state the case strongly enough about the benefits of the Single Market both in itself and in its attraction of foreign investment (Malcolm Harbour MEP's earlier post being a notable exception).

Of course, if Britain were not in the EU, then access to the EU Single Market could still be gained – but at a price. Norway makes a contribution to the EU budget, in effect for Single Market access. In 2013/14 this is expected to be around €550m, which, if scaled up for the relative population of Britain and Norway, is equivalent to around €6.8bn. And Britain would no longer have the power to influence the shape of Single Market legislation i.e. it would, like non-EU EEA members at present, have to accept it as passed down – the so-called 'fax democracy'.

Similarly – and often overlooked in a world of trading blocs – by conducting trade negotiations at EU level, Britain benefits from the power to open markets to its goods and services derived from the value of reciprocal access to EU markets and not merely from the value of reciprocal access to the British market. Those who argue that such benefits could in any case be gained from WTO membership are overlooking the fact that WTO disputes can be lengthy, difficult to resolve and difficult to enforce.

Thirdly, failure to consider what would be the reality of the 'day after' a British withdrawal. The UK would still trade significantly with the EU, would still share a land border with the EU and would remain a co-partner with many EU member states in NATO, so that the UK and the EU would still have a close relationship.

A 'clash of civilisations'?

The origins and nourishment of British Euroscepticism cannot, however, mask the fact that there are real issues to address.

Firstly, a conflict of political philosophy between the idea of a Europe built around the theology of a single currency, and the UK view of building an EU around practical co-operation and about what works to bring benefits, such as the Single Market, cooperation on the environment, strengthened border controls and more effective shared contributions to European defence.

Secondly, there is a potential threat to the Single Market deriving from the measures necessary to enable the euro zone to function effectively i.e. closer fiscal, economic and political integration within the euro zone, leading to caucusing by eurozone members on Single Market issues.

Put simply, eurozone members form a qualified majority within the EU and, if they vote as a bloc in matters decided by qualified majority voting (QMV), non-eurozone members can always be outvoted. Such a voting bloc would de facto relegate non-eurozone members to a status similar to that of Norway as described above.

If this were to happen, the EU would be a fundamentally different institution if some of its members were, in effect, second-class citizens.

There is a solution: the redefinition of a qualified majority for decisions on Single Market issues by reclassifying the euro zone as a single entity and reweighting the votes in the Council so that others can form a blocking minority. This is consistent with past practice, as the EU has generally given additional weighting to smaller states.

This would not result in the reintroduction of unanimity for all future decisions, but the opportunity to form alliances which could act as a counterweight to the euro zone is essential for Britain and other non-eurozone members to be able to continue to influence the development of the EU.

If Britain cannot secure agreement on such a reweighting or if a legal construct is found to bypass the need for unanimity on Treaty change and Britain's view is ignored, it would be hard for it to avoid starting the process of looking for alternatives, in spite of the benefits that Britain brings to and derives from the EU, because the EU would no longer be the institution which it joined in 1973.

Thirdly, behind the issue of Britain's relationship with the EU lies what some may regard as an inconvenient truth about the EU itself i.e. that Britain and other northern members of the EU are arguably much closer in key policy areas such as the concept of government as a deliverer of public services, enterprise policy and management of public debt than are the northern and southern components of the euro zone.

For Britain to leave the EU would represent a reversal of 50 years of British orientation towards Europe. Political divorce, as Scotland and England may be about to find out with the possible end of 300 years of political union, may have unintended consequences. In hard economic times, it would be difficult for Britain to leave the EU without at least some sharp division and harsh words. And it may be that both sides would only realise how much the relationship meant until it had ended and would be difficult to reconstruct.

It is time for all sides to think about what they really want to achieve as the EU faces fundamental decisions in the coming weeks about the budget for 2014-2020, a banking union and further steps towards economic and monetary union."

Michael Burnett is a senior faculty member at the European Institute of Public Administration. The views expressed here are his own.