Britain and the EU: Friends with Benefits Should Kiss and Make Up

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British Chancellor George Osborne began the year in combative fashion when he set down an ultimatum regarding Britain’s relationship with the European Union; reform or face decline[1]. For as long as it has been a member of the EU, Britain has been viewed as the “reluctant European”, and David Cameron’s pledge of holding a referendum on whether or not the UK should remain within the EU has not helped this perception. Perhaps the best way to sum up the relationship between Britain and the EU is to use a colloquialism; it has been a friendship with benefits and Britain has always seemed to falter when it comes to greater commitment in the form of deeper integration.

Since becoming a member state in 1973, the UK has remained a cautious outsider.  Even its campaign to become a member was troubled; the French repeatedly blocked Britain’s first attempts to join with Charles de Gaulle infamously saying “Non” to the British twice, first in 1961 and later in 1967. De Gaulle foresaw Britain’s reluctance to wholly dedicate itself to the grand European project in the same manner as its neighbours France and Germany.

After de Gaulle’s retirement, Britain finally joined the EU, but it appears that de Gaulle’s prediction about Britain remaining on the edge of Europe has been proved correct. The British-EU relationship has remain on and off throughout the past four decades. One of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies was her infamous “No. No. No.” speech to the House of Commons in 1990 when it was initially suggested that the European Parliament was to become the democratic body of the EU and it was this speech that sparked a series of events that lead to her resignation.

When first elected, Tony Blair seized the opportunity to suggest that Britain could serve as a diplomatic bridge between the United States and Europe, but by his second term, this was forgotten as Blair turned his focus primarily to the special relationship between the Britain and the EU. Cameron’s first major act of defiance against Brussels was to walk away from the negotiations over the second bailout mechanism for troubled Eurozone members in 2012, and while the Conservatives have traditionally remained the more Eurosceptic of Britain’s two major political parties, Cameron’s pledge for a referendum on EU membership last January took Britain’s stance as the reluctant European to a new level.

Though not be the first time a British Prime Minister has challenged the EU, it does appear that Cameron is playing a dangerous game with Britain’s economic future and its place in global politics. While legislation does exist that can facilitates an exit, things will undoubtedly get messy;  Britain would have to renegotiate every bilateral economic agreement is has as part of the collective EU common market as well as negotiate new agreements with the EU itself. An example of this is the US-EU bilateral agreement, which once negotiated, would be the largest bilateral trade agreement in the world. If Britain was to exit the EU it would potentially miss out on an agreement worth hundreds of billions of pounds annually[2].

A hard truth that Cameron and the Eurosceptics need to face is that the sun set on the British Empire long ago. There are many benefits to the British-EU relationship that outweigh the concerns of a small branch of Eurosceptic Conservatives and far right wing parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).  Even in the midst of the Eurozone crisis, the EU remains the world’s largest economy and it is difficult to envision how the recovering British economy could hold its own against an established economic powerhouse like the EU as well as developing economies such as India and China.

A more Realist perspective of the relationship would suggest that there is nothing shocking about a state such as Britain using its bargaining power to get more out of an alliance with the world’s largest economy. Perhaps the referendum may just be another curious incident in the British-EU relationship, but it is foolish for Cameron and the Tories to boil British-EU relations down to a simple ultimatum.  The Eurozone crisis may given British Eurosceptics more ammunition in their case for an exit, but the fact remains that Britain still needs the EU; there still remains many benefits to the strained relationship between Britain and the EU.

Written by Keshia Jacotine