The Dis-Uniting Kingdom?

The Dis-Uniting Kingdom?

Opinion piece (The Wall Street Journal)
30 June 2009

Britain's European debate has gone septic. More than half of British votes cast in recent European elections went to euro-skeptic parties ranging from the mad, bad political fringes such as the British National Party to a Conservative Party promising to claw back powers from Brussels. Radio shows pulse with anger as callers vent their frustration about the EU - complaining about everything from mass immigration to an EU ban on wasteful light-bulbs.

Why so angry, Britannia? EU membership costs the British a mere 0.33% of GDP or around £93 ($154) per person a year. At less than the price of a TV license, that amount is easily recouped in the form of freer trade, freer movement, budget airfares, lower roaming charges and so on. Britain is only the sixth biggest net contributor to the EU's budget, not a bad ranking for one of the club's richest members. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Sweden pay more per head.

The recent surge in anti-European feelings is even more astounding in light of the fact that over the past decade the EU has been highly congenial to British interests. Particularly since 2004, the European Commission has been economically liberal and has focused on issues such as climate change, migration and energy liberalisation - the policies Britain says it cares most about. More importantly, the EU's eastward enlargement effectively killed off the notion of a federal Europe - a boogey-man for the sovereign-minded British - and, in the same stroke, anchored democracy and freedom in formerly communist countries.

Yet Britain's European debate remains stuck somewhere between 1988 and 1993, when then-Commission President Jacques Delors infuriated Magaret Thatcher by regulating for a "social Europe" and John Major managed to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, establishing today's EU, against the wishes of many in his own party.

Since then the British have widely viewed the EU as a stifling federation in the making, a huge budgetary drain, and a means by which scheming and venal foreigners can take hapless Britons for a ride. The British pay close attention to (and routinely exaggerate) the costs of membership, while ignoring the benefits. Many use their EU-given right to seek jobs or homes in Spain and France only to then complain when Poles or Czechs do likewise in Britain.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair correctly saw the importance in changing the terms of this histrionic shouting match. Mr. Blair failed because, in their way, the British are attached to their tired European debate and stereotypes. They are no more likely to change than the French or Germans are likely to stop their tirades against "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism.

The belief in a manifest destiny separate from the continent has, of course, a long tradition in British politics. But such isolationism would not only hurt Britain's standing in Europe and cede EU leadership to a renewed Franco-German alliance at a vital time for the world economy. It would also undermine Britain's ties to the U.S. -- valued most by the White House when the Britain's stock is high among its European allies.

Conservative leader David Cameron, if and when he becomes prime minister, will inherit this age-old British habit of looking across the Channel with suspicion. He is already hamstrung by his party's opposition to the Lisbon treaty, which is not so much a Brussels power grab as a long overdue reform of the EU's rules and institutions.

He has vaguely promised "not to let matters rest there" if the treaty enters into force, meaning either he will repeal the treaty's ratification or re-negotiate Britain's EU membership. This might be a popular move given the country's euroskeptic mood but the problem for Mr. Cameron is that the treaty's reforms are actually a good deal for Britain. The text is larded with guarantees specially tailored to British concerns over its sovereignty in foreign policy, justice and social protection. And its clauses contain the seeds of a better functioning EU where enlargement can continue and big countries have a fairer say. British euroskeptics oppose it not because it hurts the country's position within the EU but because such opposition is a first step to shoe-horn Britain out of the EU altogether.

If Ireland votes "yes" to the treaty in a second referendum in October, all but assuring its entry into force, Mr. Cameron will probably accept the British Parliament's own Lisbon Treaty ratification last year and not restart the debate about a British referendum. But if he really must not leave the matter there, here are some more constructive options for advancing the European debate in Britain.

First, he could establish a royal commission on Britain's place in Europe, a tried and trusted way of tackling controversial issues sensibly. The commission should be chaired by a figure whose objectivity is beyond question; have powers to call witnesses and take evidence; and engage with civil society as well as politicians. The commission's terms of reference should be to answer the question: Is membership of the post-Lisbon EU in Britain's interests?

Second, Mr. Cameron could legislate so that future treaty changes would be subject to referendums. But any such law should contain a clear legal test triggering a referendum only if a fundamental tranfer of sovereignty is in question. Finally, if zealots in his own party force Mr. Cameron to hold an EU referendum immediately, it should be based on the simple issue of whether Britain should remain in, or leave, the club. That is the real issue that needs resolution, not a set of bureaucratic reforms already ratified by the parliament.

Gone are the heady days when Mr. Blair vowed to put Britain at the heart of the EU, and even aspired to join the single currency. We are entering an era where Britain's very membership will no longer be a bankable certainty, given the extreme antipathy which which politicians and public alike claim to view it. Before deciding what course to take, Mr. Cameron should recall a truism borne out by the darker chapters of Britain's long island story, including its lack of European allies when the American colonies rebelled or Neville Chamberlain's near-disastrous attempt to stand aloof from the continent in the 1930s. That is: The more disengaged Britain becomes from "Europe," the less it controls its own destiny.