The UK is known in the EU as an 'Awkward Partner’, a designation that is not exactly flattering, but which makes the Brits proud of themselves nevertheless. They oppose the European Commission's integration agenda and set themselves very independent on many occasions. In part, this position may be explained from a historic perspective, for another part from of a fundamentally different vision of what the European Union stands for and what its priorities should be.

'Splendid Isolation'

The UK is an island nation with a deeply rooted desire for the certainty of tradition and with a certain predictability in social relations. Its selfesteem can be traced back to the stable constitutional system of the Magna Carta as well as to its Empire founded on maritime power and on its success as an industrial "incubator". Since the Napoleontic wars, Britain had a unique position relative to the other 'superpowers' on mainland Europe such as Germany, Russia, and France, which occupied each other from time to time with fighting. England had to keep interest aloof in these conflicts, to secure free trade and shipping routes to its colonies. Conflicts indeed cost money, increase the risk of trade restrictive measures such as boycotts, blockades and higher import duties, such to the detriment of focus on own priorities. This strategy of aloofness became known as the "Splendid Isolation”.  At the height of its power the British Colonial Empire comprised a fifth of the total land surface of the World and supplied England with the bulk of its raw materials and agricultural products. No language barriers existed and British culture was the dominant factor in the business, the military and politics within the boundaries of the Empire. In this sense, there has never been a strong appeal to British citizens to adapt to standards that they had not initiated themselves.

In this respect, the countries on the European continent were in a tougher spot and, despite their own colonies, have been much more dependent on each other for resources, specialization and regional markets. As we very well know, this dependence led to rivalry and expansion drive, culminating in the two worst unscrupulous conflicts that ever have plagued the continent. It took two World Wars and British intransigence in defending their own sovereignty, to rid mainland Europe of the demons that it could not control itself. But the price she paid was high: many Brits lost their lives, the economy was literally in ruins, the country suffered from an unbearable debt burden and, according to some (with a certain negation of the reality of the ‘zeitgeist’) even cost England its' Empire '.

Britain and the EU: a love-hate relationship

In more than one respect England has been at the heart of today's European Union. With the end of World War II it was clear that only by bringing together the social, political and economic interests of European countries, and especially those of France and Germany, the horrors of war, destruction and starvation of its citizens could be prevented in future. It was Winston Churchill who on September 19, 1946 advocated to form a United States of Europe. A United Europe where Britain saw no place for itself in the first instance, but for which it understood the historical necessity and wanted to be a sponsor of.

As a result of the war and decolonization afterwards, despite being a victor and presumably initially unconsciously repressed by its citizens and politicians, the position of the United Kingdom had been seriously weakened in the mean time. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy due to the immense war effort. The United States and the Soviet Union had driven it from the centre of world power. Its Colonial Empire crumbled rapidly. While its own economy was struggling to keep its head above water and with the Pound Stirling dropping steadily in value, the French and German economies recovered quickly and strongly, partly as a result of the new European cooperation, first within the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and since 1957 in the European Economic Community (EEC).

In 1961, under conservative leadership and pressured by its ailing economy, Britain signed up for membership of the EEC. French President De Gaulle managed to block this twice (1963 and 1967) thus severely snubbing the English. The English who saved France twice in the 20th century at the time of her greatest distress, have never forgiven the French for this. Only after De Gaulle's resignation in 1969 the UK, again under conservative leadership, dared to apply again. Once admitted in 1973 and after a referendum in 1975 ratified by two-thirds of British voters and supported by three of the main parties in parliament and all national newspapers, the UK joined the EEC. With the knowledge of today it indicates how precarious the economic situation in England must have been at that time, that such a majority supported the membership.

Since the UK accession to the (then) EEC, the organization of the community changed quite a bit. Particularly under the leadership of the French socialist Jacques Delors between 1985 and 199, this common economic market developed into a political, and for many Member States, even a monetary union. It is this development to a federal state, the increasing power and regulation in Brussels and the development towards a European currency which increasingly concerned England. Only with 'gifts' (substantial reduction in its annual contribution to the European Union (EU)) and by negotiating exemptions from certain Treaty obligations (‘opt-outs': Schengen, Euro, Fundamental Rights and finally Freedom, security and justice) the UK sulkily, but undoubtedly very much aware, shifted further in the direction of a sort of federative relationship, it really did not want to not be part of in the first place.

A new relationship with the EU?

Since the introduction of the Euro the sentiment in England towards the EU seriously declined. This sentiment cuts across party lines, although it is a fact that Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party are overwhelmingly pro-European. Accordingly, though very opportunistic, it was not surprising that the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron announced in January 2013 that if the Conservatives would win a parliamentary majority in the 2015 elections, his government would enter in negotiations with the EU to achieve better conditions for British membership. The result would subsequently be subjected to a referendum before the end of 2017, in which the British people would be able to decide for themselves whether or not to remain in the EU.

Trust EU:UK (Eng).png

The timing was not entirely coincidental: not only the EU could inspire little trust from the British people, the Cameron’s government was not exactly popular either (see graph above). In the period from late 2011 to early 2014 only between 21% and 25% of British voters trusted its own government according to EU surveys (for comparison purposes: the Dutch trust in their government, is more than 20 % higher).

Cameron gambled, but won this stage. The Conservatives gained a majority in the lower house and now had five years to:

  • renegotiate with the EU the revised conditions for British membership;
  • ratify the results thereof in accordance with the procedure laid down in the Treaty on the European Union;
  • prepare for and hold the referendum before the end of 2017;
  • and subsequently manage the possible consequences of the outcome of the results.

This is not a simple task, but both the UK and the EU have an interest in a successful outcome. Cameron knows all too well that the withdrawal from the EU, is potentially disastrous from a political perspective. As an independent nation, it would be relatively irrelevant, may become politically isolated and might find it difficult to make a real fist internationally (despite having a veto-right at the UN Security Council). The EU can afford little bad news either, however. The withdrawal of the UK from the EU, after so many crises during recent years around banks, the Euro, Greece and refugees, would pose too much loss of face and harmful unrest. Moreover, an increasingly broad understanding has arisen across the EU that fundamental flaws have crept in the structure of the Union that undermine the support and democratic legitimacy to its citizens. In this sense, Cameron's action is a chance to repair imperfections and is an opportunity to give a boost to a reorientation on the priorities for the organization and processes within the European Union.

What does Cameron expect from the EU?

On several occasions Cameron has explicitly expressed an opinion on his commitment to renegotiate the UK's relations with the EU. The first time was during a speech on January 23, 2013, then in the Conservative’s party Manifesto for the parliamentary elections in 2015, and most recently in a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk on November 10, 2015.

With respect to the proposed subjects for renegotiation, although broadly consistent, there seems to be a certain degree of popular expediency, which is dictated by current events. This seems especially true with regard to the position on the limitation of EU migrant flows and the possible reduction of reliance on social services by this group, which suddenly was on the agenda for the dialogue with the EU. A very shallow government paper to support this apparently popular objective, suggests that between 37% and 45% of EU migrants to the UK (including Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) claims a social benefit or tax credit. It is entirely unclear what benefits and tax credits are referred to, nor does the document provide an insight into the question whether it imposes an unacceptable or disproportionate burden on British public funds. In addition, it does not provide any clue how this further relates to the fact that 62.8% of this group have a job (even 81,3% (!) for Eastern European EU joiners post 2004), compared with 45.9% of the population born in the UK. It would appear that this issue should be regarded as satisfying a politically charged perception problem rather then an unacceptable burden on public funds.

Within the premises of a common economic market (as an antithesis of a political union) Cameron has expressed his commitment for a stronger Europe, wanting to create prosperity and stability and to bring freedom and democracy. The European Union in his view is only a means to that end and not a goal in itself. He fears that a far-reaching political union only serves to alienate citizens from its European institutions. It undermines the sovereignty of the Member States, creates a democratic deficit, leads to unnecessary regulation and feeds the red tape. Cameron adds that the Union must be open to variety and embrace flexibility, so that speed of action is guaranteed in times of crisis taking into account the (im)possibilities and ambitions of each country, irrespective of differences in social, cultural, political and economic conditions. He is convinced this better fosters cohesion, then the straitjacket of the half-baked compromises that are now all too often being hatched and imposed.

What did Cameron gain from his negotiations with the EU?

February 2, 2016 saw the draft outcome of the negotiations Cameron had with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. The reality -as usual in this type of negotiations- proved less exiting than the expectations Cameron had raised. The 16 pages long and mostly unreadable draft agreement does not live up to any of the expectations raised in the past two years. There is a virtually toothless provision that EU legislation can be stopped if it is rejected by a 55% majority of the total votes of all the national parliaments together. Is it really conceivable that government leaders are so badly 'connected' that this can actually happen? In addition, a framework was announced under which, in specific circumstances to be determined by ‘Brussels’, payment of child support to workers from other EU-countries may be limited or work-related incentives may be reduced. This initiative contains too many ifs, buts and dependencies. Furthermore, one is made to believe that a number of initiatives highly desired by the UK but already previously agreed by the European Commission will now really be implemented. This isa hollow promise without substance on something which was already previously agreed upon but not executed. It is also agreed that previously negotiated Treaty exemptions by the United Kingdom (currently incorporated in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) will now be included in the European Treaty when the opportunity arises and after such is ratified by the various national parliaments. This an upgrade with no meaning and without little cost. On balance, if one is honest, remarkably little has actually been achieved.

The agreement is therefore difficult to sell as a win for Cameron and to the UK as a whole. It is hard to imagine that Cameron was unaware that he struck a poorly negotiated deal. Both supporters and opponents of of a British exit from the EU are extremely critical on the outcome of his efforts and the media as well make little of Cameron's claim that substantial progress has been made to warrant the UK remaining in the EU. 

Deal is also bad for Europe

This deal, in my opinion, not only short-changes Cameron and the UK, but is also bad for the EU. The EU increasingly distances itself from its citizens. The objections Cameron has brought against the current structure, functioning and direction of the EU, has also rung home with non-UK (pro-) Europeans. The agreement seems to completely ignore this sentiment and fails to act on the increasingly felt need to speed up deregulation and subsidiarity (which aims at enacting laws nationally where possible, only regulating on a European level if necessary). Tight deadlines and concrete action plans in support of the now very vaguely formulated plans had certainly helped here and taken would have taken criticism away. As such, this draft agreement not only is a golden opportunity for the British anti-EU camp to achieve their desired Brexit, but also a missed opportunity for the EU itself to act upon clear signals from society at large, to turn already agreed upon intentions into concrete policies and keep the UK within the EU. In addition, it opens the door to nationalist forces on the European continent who see an opportunity to distinguish themselves further on populist themes such as migration, the Euro, federation formation (institutionalism), East-West/North-South divisions, democratic deficits and so on. The rampant wildfire in the European project which is going on for some time already, may have found a driver in the way Donald Tusk has taken up this job.

So now what?

Cameron’s standing meanwhile, has caught a huge dent and rightly so. He has played with fire, and as such has to live with the consequences now. The fact is that he -in his opportunism to win the Brits for an additional period of five years under Conservative leadership- has overplayed his hand. As a result Cameron has now turned into a lame duck.

If ‘he’ loses the referendum -and by today’s odds this is very likely- his commitment aimed at renegotiating the British EU treaty position, is found wanting. Should he not step down himself, his own party -in good parliamentary tradition- aiming to prevent further electoral damage, will put him aside without any second thought. The best possible way out of this quagmire lies in a flight forward, shifting the planned referendum (according to some sources already planned for June/July) towards the end 2017, work hard for a better deal and manically monitor progress in achieving the best, but as yet vague, intentions of the EU. This costs short-term political credibility, but considering the current events not much of that is left anyway. It would help if the European Council ignores the outcome of Donald Tusk’s negotiations and pushes for a new round of negotiations. A lot is at stake for the EU as well. Perhaps the Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte can lend a hand here. Whatever way you look at this, it will be very messy and a ‘favourable’ outcome extremely unlikely/

Meanwhile, it is not certain whether a Brexit confers an economic disadvantage or an advantage to the Brits. Opinions are divided on this. In itself, this is weird. What's the point of an institution like the EU if it does not generate a clear advantage for its members? The future will tell how this will develop. Personally I am not too optimistic on the resilience of the UK economy.  Should a Brexit actually happen however, Britain may emerge as a safe haven and economic power-house for Euro-refugees (Marine LePen, Geert Wilders and others?) with London as its capital!

AuthorMark Goudsmit