Among the numerous invisible elephants that haunt the seats of government of 27 of the 28 EU member-States is the particularly ghostly issue of the British question. How is it possible that a subject as important as the place and the role of the United Kingdom in the EU is being blatantly avoided? The situation, however, is very real. Twenty-seven States have become hostage to one man, David Cameron, who is himself the hostage of another – Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
The referendum on a possible exit of Britain from the EU 1, promised for 2017 by the leader of the Conservative party, whether it finally happens or not, isn’t a political deadline just for the British but for all Europeans. Does the EU leadership have nothing to say? Do they not have anything to offer with which they could hoist the Tory leader out of the trap he has got himself into? Under the overused pretext that talking about it would make things worse, or in the forlorn hope that a return of the Labour party to 10 Downing Street would magically sweep away the growing hostility towards the EU, we have complete radio silence.
Let’s not be mistaken. These anti-EU feelings are not merely the manifestation of a deep-rooted British insularity or visceral rejection of what is often portrayed over the Channel as the bureaucratic monster of Brussels, nor are they the consequence of the poisoned chalice that the continentals gave to Britain in demanding that a system of proportional representation be introduced for European elections. They are, above all, as in many other European countries, a British version of a reactionary 2 response to the enormous changes which go hand-in-hand with “the irreversible creolisation” 3 of the world.
“Wait and see” is not an option
Whilst David Cameron can be accused of letting himself get caught in this trap set by these new reactionaries, and whilst we could discuss British uniqueness until the cows come home, the main thing is that the inexorable process that has started across the Channel concerns the whole of Europe.
Almost every day brings us new signs of anti-EU feeling. At the beginning of January, no less than 95 British Conservative MPs sent a message to their Prime Minister urging him to introduce a system of veto over all EU legislation, whether current or future. Some days later, it was the turn of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to lay down the ultimatum that “the EU should reform or we will leave it”. Instead of withdrawing into denial, or, off the record, taking the easy stance of “good riddance”, shouldn’t the “continentals” (as we are known) think about what the EU would look like without Britain and try to understand how to prevent what would be irreparable damage, or better still, how to transform this unilateral British demand into an opportunity for all of Europe, Britain included.
Let time do its work
Today, if the opinion polls are to be believed, only 26% of British voters consider the EU to be “a good thing” overall and 42% consider it to be “a bad thing” 4. In contrast, 41% of Britons between 18 and 24 would not wish to leave the EU and support “Britain’s long-lasting membership” 5. If these statistics are correct and if we deem Britain’s membership to be essential, then we must look to the future and save time – probably 20 years, until the new generations are able to turn the tables their advantage.
Also, if we consider that the current attitude of the British Government is hindering all advances in such areas of vital importance for the future of the EU as foreign affairs and defence, and that it is a convenient excuse for their own inertia, a welcome move would be to construct an institutional framework which would keep the British happy whilst allowing those who wish to progress to do so without being held back, including by States who pay lip service to this progress.
An EU based on four freedoms
Let us consider what the majority of the British want today – an EU that enables free movement and free trade. Let us make the EU a union of four freedoms of movement – of people, goods, services and capital. 6
So, for example, let’s split up the Common Agricultural Policy into a section of basic rules (sanitary, veterinary and environmental standards, pesticide use, animal well-being, etc.) that would be common to all member countries, and another section comprising all measures for agriculture, which would only be applicable to the countries of “little” Europe.
Let’s also restrict EU involvement in regional matters, foreign affairs and defence to members of “little” Europe only. Also, on the same criteria, let’s split the EU budget into two parts – a first section concerning all member countries and a second for those that have opted for more integration. The cherry on the cake would be that this financial overhaul would finally allow the resolution of the thorny issue of the “British rebate”.
The single market as a priority
It goes without saying that this double level of integration could bring about inconsistencies for both individuals and businesses. Substantial social standards would remain applicable in all countries. Establishing different rules for British workers and those from other EU countries, as certain British politicians want, would be out of the question, as much in the future as it is today 7.
Two speeds, but a single institutional framework
If, as Sylvie Goulard and Mario Monti assert, “the unity of a 27-member EU (28 today), especially that of the single market, is essential to protect everyone’s prosperity” and that “an overhaul should keep in mind the necessity of being a coherent bloc” 8 it is indispensable to construct an institutional framework allowing a harmonious cohabitation of all member-States, for those who would have opted for a limited level of integration, like the British, as well as for those who would have chosen a closer union based on the single currency today, or on a common (but not single) defence and security policy tomorrow.
As such, all countries should have the right to take part in all debates and to defend their own positions, including with the use of amendments. Only the decision – the vote – would be the responsibility of the countries participating in the policy in question. The political agenda of the European Parliament and Council as well as the voting systems 9 should be adjusted according to these two levels of integration.
The Heads of State and Government could charge the next President of the European Commission with the task of submitting to the member-States and the European Parliament – within a time-frame compatible with the British deadline of 2017 – a proposal to reorganize the treaties which would recognize this two-speed institutional framework.
This would be another option to add to those highlighted by Vivien Pertusot 10, researcher at the IFRI (French Institute of International Relations), in his thorough analysis “In Europe, not ruled by Europe” – “keeping full membership; becoming an associate member; leaving the union”. It would be a marriage between “full membership” and “associate membership”. The admirers of the French-style institutional garden would probably be rather disappointed. But it would matter little if the price to pay to allow the British to stay on board is an English-style garden!
An opportunity for enlargement to include Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and Moldova
A new institutional framework of this type 11 would also allow the question of Turkey joining the EU to be tackled in a more objective and responsible manner. For Turkish intellectuals such as Cengiz Aktar or Ahmet Insel, the prospect of Turkey joining a wider EU (and not the EU “hard core”) would not be seen, it is indispensable to construct an institutional framework allowing should be adjusted according to these two levels of integration. would also allow the question of Turkey joining the EU to negatively. On the contrary, it would stimulate a rapid return to the virtuous process of reforms that the then real prospect had brought about during the 1990s and start of the 2000s. Moreover, this new institutional order would allow more problematic issues to be tackled such as Ukraine in particular, weakened internally by a predatory political class and externally, by the neo-imperialist and authoritarian ambitions of Vladimir Putin. The cases of Georgia and Moldova could also be dealt with 12. For these countries, even more than for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU during the 2000s, a clear prospect of joining a widened Union would constitute a tremendous incentive (due to the obligation to respect the criteria of Copenhagen) 13 to create the right conditions for the rule of law and democracy to take root.
“Don’t even think about it!” “An EU with 38 members or even more is impossible. It would seal its fate, it would be the end of the European dream, the ruination of 60 years of efforts, of laboriously worked-out compromises.” But what if this “truth” was merely a tall story? What if those primarily responsible for the deadlocks which punctuate the history of European construction were not to be found amongst the “new” members such as Austria, Finland and Sweden who joined in 1996, or even amongst the countries of Central and Eastern Europe who joined in 2004 and 2007, but amongst the veterans of EU construction? Britain, of course, one example of their open hostility (amongst many) being towards any serious advancement in the field of foreign affairs and defence; Germany, opposed since the start of the crisis to any idea of a sharing of the debt even though it was (and still is) possible to structure at least a partial mutualisation in with precise reforms; Luxembourg, who only accepted banking reforms under pressure from… the USA; Belgium, who has resisted the harmonisation of taxes on savings products; Greece, who continues to hinder the full international recognition of Macedonia for… toponymic reasons; France, who opposed the Schaüble-Lammers proposal in favour of the creation of a “hard core” in 1991, and still opposes (while conveniently hiding behind British intransigence) any serious progress concerning the integration of foreign policy and defence.
For a democratic appropriation of Europe
The reality is that as long as there are efficient democratic decision-making structures, European construction will stay on track. Two levels of integration would not necessarily mean two levels of democracy. In “wider” Europe, just as in “little” Europe, the process by which the parliament and the council make decisions together would be generalized. There would be no right to a veto: each country could have the possibility of appealing before the Court of Justice in Luxembourg against improper legislative initiatives – in other words, anything not necessary for the functioning of the single market.
Certainly, this functional separation would not solve everything. Most importantly, it would not deal with the lack of democratic involvement of all European citizens in their European Union. But solutions can be found in this area too. The election by simple majority of at least half of European MPs would favour the process of the citizens “owning” those who represent them in Strasbourg or Brussels. But, the direct election of the President of the European Commission would unequivocally guarantee the institutional unity of the Union and would give all European citizens the possibility of feeling involved in the democratic choice of who will preside over our common destiny.
- The question asked could be structured as such: “Do you think that the UK should be a member of the EU?” ↩
- The word “reactionary” is not used here in a derogatory sense but describes a political agenda advocating an impossible return to a previous situation, whether real or imagined ↩
- For the writer Edouard Glissant, “the creolisation of the world is irreversible”. Interview of Edouard Glissant by Frédéric Joignot, Le Monde, 3 February 2011 ↩
- “In or out? Britain’s future in Europe.” Opinium Research for Lansons Public Affairs and Cambre Associates in association with City of London Corporation, 3 December 2013 ↩
- “Only 32% of young people want to leave the EU”, Young people “want UK to stay in Europe”, Nigel Morris, The Independent, 15 December 2013 ↩
- “Free movement is looked upon positively by the British, as is the free market”, Opinium Research for Lansons Public Affairs and Cambre Associates in association with City of London Corporation, 3 December 2013 ↩
- “Britain – David Cameron shaken by the eurosceptics”, LeMonde.fr, 12January 2014, in which we learn that Iain Duncan Smith, the Minister for Work and Pensions, considers that EU immigrants should show that they are committed to the country (the UK) ↩
- De la démocratie en Europe, Sylvie Goulard, Mario Monti, Ed. Flammarion, 2012, p. 195 ↩
- All Council decisions are made by double majority (majority of States and majority of citizens) ↩
- In Europe, Not Ruled by Europe. Tough Love between Britain and the EU, Vivien Pertusot, IFRI, March 2013 to create the right conditions for the rule of law and democracy to take root. ↩
- A framework which would also suit Iceland, Norway or Switzerland ↩
- Due to the openly authoritarian characteristics of the regimes in place in Azerbaijan and Belarus and due to strategic decisions made by Armenia, such a scenario is not possible for these countries ↩
- The criteria of Copenhagen include the existence of “stable institutions guaranteeing the rule of law, democracy, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities”, “a viable market economy as well as the capability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union” and “the ability to fulfil EU membership obligations, mainly by complying with the conditions of the political, economic and monetary union”. Wikipedia ↩