The United Kingdom is edging ever closer to the exit door of the European Union. All the signs indicate that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron will hold the promised EU referendum in the coming year, and with both polling data and the political mood in the UK suggesting that a British exit (a ‘Brexit’) is a very real possibility, supporters of the ‘European Project’ both inside the UK and on the continent should prepare themselves for what seemed unthinkable a few years ago: a UK exit from the European Union.
While a Brexit would certainly cause short term political and economic instability for both the UK and its European partners, it should by no means be regarded as a death-knell for the European Project. Indeed, the case for supporters of the European Union, both in Britain and on the continent, to actively support and (if eligible) vote for the UK’s departure from the EU is not as absurd as it might sound. A Brexit might in fact provide the EU with an opportunity both to rid itself of its most awkward member and to embark on a programme of fundamental reform and further integration.
Perils of Britain’s Renegotiation
As a precursor to the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron has over the past three years been seeking to win a number of concessions from the other 27 EU leaders. It was revealed in November 2015 that Cameron hopes to secure guarantees of change in four key areas of EU policy: competitiveness, sovereignty, economic parity between those inside and outside the Eurozone and immigration. The final of these four areas, that of immigration, is proving particularly difficult for Cameron, with Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydło leading the objections to the UK’s desire ‘to ban EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits for four years’. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, has rejected outright the notion of such a change being implemented.
Mr Cameron’s renegotiation places supporters of the EU in a difficult position. If the renegotiation is successful then the EU will be radically changed. The UK’s proposed changes to rules on immigration, for example, challenge fundamentally the EU’s commitment to free movement and the notion of a common European citizenship. In exchange for a successful renegotiation, Prime Minister Cameron will lend his support to the pro-EU campaign and recommend that the UK vote to stay in the EU. If the renegotiation is unsuccessful, however, there is a very strong chance that David Cameron will come out for a vote to leave.
The fact remains that the UK as a whole is opposed to further integration for a number of historical and cultural reasons, and has been remarkably Eurosceptic for some time. The current Conservative Government and the wider British public are resolutely opposed to any advances to the European project which strengthen the EU at the cost of national sovereignty. And in the present moment, the EU desperately needs strengthening. Closer political union is required to enable the EU to demonstrate that it has sufficient control to tackle the various challenges it faces. A stronger union would also assist the EU to deal with some of the problems it has seen in the failure of member states’ intelligence agencies to share information, or the exploitation of the EU policy of free movement by terrorist suspects, not to mention further integration being a solution to the economic troubles that still threaten the Eurozone.
David Cameron’s renegotiation is not based around a desire to see the EU strengthened: instead it is based on his own domestic political interests. Chief of these is his desire to appease the majority of his own Conservative Party, where an attitude of hostility towards Britain’s membership of the EU is prevalent. This is the case both among the Conservative Party’s Members of Parliament and its wider supporters.
Should the other 27 leaders accept Cameron’s demands the result will be a two tier European Union – a Europe split between states that move closer together, based primarily around the single currency, and those states, like the UK, that wish to remain stationary. This sort of division is precisely what the EU has worked so hard to prevent over the past decades.
Europhiles, then, when faced with a UK renegotiation which stymies any chance of further European integration must embrace the prospect of refusing concessions to David Cameron. A UK exit would enable France and Germany, as the two major powers at the heart of the EU, to forge a Europe that comes closer together, both politically and economically, possibly even with the goal of a federalised European Union at some point in this century.
So for non-UK supporters of the EU a UK vote to leave could bring some real opportunities, including the chance to make the EU function better as a union. At the same time a Brexit would avoid the potential disadvantages of permitting David Cameron to secure a deal for Britain which rends the fabric of the European Union in two.
But what about supporters of the EU who live in the UK? The prospect of being outside a European Union which by pursuing a programme of closer integration grows ever stronger might not provide much comfort.
Some hope might be gleamed from the consequences on British politics of a vote to leave. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which has gone from strength to strength since the closely fought 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, has publicly stated that a UK exit from the EU could trigger a second referendum on Scottish independence. Opinion in Scotland, according to the polls, is heavily pro-EU, and the SNP sees a scenario where Scotland is dragged out of the EU against its will by the other Eurosceptic members of the UK as a potential game-changer. This would give the Scottish Government grounds to hold another referendum, and would in all likelihood increase the Nationalists’ chances of winning independence.
The prospect of an independent Scotland might make the remainder of the UK reconsider whether a United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland can retain any sort of status on the world stage without being part of the EU. At present a false dichotomy drives debate in the UK between those who want to see Britain defined by its relationship with the United States and those who think that the UK’s future lies with the European continent. The answer, of course, is that the UK’s future lies in maintaining good relationships with both the EU and the USA (and indeed there are signs that the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US would become remarkably less ‘special’ if it chose to leave the EU). But a future which sees the UK lose Scotland could decisively push whatever is left of the UK back towards Europe.
European Future, In or Out
For supporters of the European Union, then, both inside and outside the UK, there are reasons to see a potential Brexit as a possible benefit to the EU, rather than something that should be feared. For EU member states, a UK exit would avoid the messy and counter-productive consequences offered by some of David Cameron’s aims of renegotiation. And for supporters of the EU in the UK, a Brexit might just unleash a chain of political events which sees a radically changed and reshaped UK become more accommodating to the European Project. A vote for Brexit might, paradoxically, be exactly what the United Kingdom and the European Union both need to ensure a more European Britain and a more united Europe.
Thomas Cowie is currently an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge studying Classics. His particular interests include Chinese foreign and domestic policy and China’s relations with the West. Other interests include the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU.
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Cover image by GPPW