Get your coat Mr Blair – you've just been asked to leave the EU

Get your coat Mr Blair – you've just been asked to leave the EU

Opinion piece (European Voice)
17 February 2005

There are a host of ifs and buts. But the UK might, just might, be asked to leave the European Union if British voters reject the constitution, warns Charles Grant What if current opinion polls are a good guide to voting intentions in the ten member states that will hold referenda on the EU’s constitutional treaty?

What if, as those polls suggest, everyone except the UK ratifies the treaty? What would happen next is far from clear. But it is likely that some of the more integrationist member states would try to press ahead with the constitution.

Legally, of course, the treaty cannot enter into force unless ratified by all 25 members. But some governments would argue that one country should not be allowed to block the Union and that political will should overcome the legal difficulties. They would ask the British to accept a special status, on the Norway model – inside the single market, but outside the EU.

Advocates of this way out of the constitutional crisis would point to its advantages, compared with the main alternative – the establishment of a core Europe by France and Germany. That is because a core Europe would mean that the EU had to abandon its constitutional treaty and it would be both politically divisive and legally difficult to make this work alongside the wider EU. Some French leaders, in particular, would find the prospect of a Union without the British appealing. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the chairman of the Convention that drafted the constitution, and Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ruling UMP party, for example, both say they are keen to keep Britain in the EU; but they add that if 24 states ratify the treaty and one does not, it should not be allowed to stop the others going ahead.

There is one big problem with the plan to push out Britain: the British government would probably not agree to go. And that would make it hard for the others to leave the UK behind – but perhaps not impossible. So long as every member other than Britain was ready and willing to go along with the scheme, the 24 could withdraw from the existing treaties. They could then redraft the constitutional treaty so that the EU had just 24 members and then sign and ratify the document. Such a plan was mooted when the Danes rejected the Maastricht treaty in 1992 (before changing their mind a year later).

But while several governments, if faced with a choice between losing the treaty and losing the British, would rather lose the British, one or two would probably not. And the UK would only need one government to stand beside it to make it impossible for the others to force Britain out. If just a single British ally was blocking this scheme, the other 23 could conceivably try to exclude Britain and its friend, redrafting the constitution for 23. But that is highly implausible.

Many governments believe that the EU has two big tasks in the coming decades: to encourage the member states to push ahead with economic reform and to build an effective common foreign and security policy. They know that the EU cannot easily tackle either of those challenges without British participation. Anglophile countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal would not readily wish to kick out Britain. Some of the Irish would feel uncomfortable in a Union without Britain. Even some Germans, though wedded to the sanctity of the Franco-German relationship, would be loath to lose the UK. Many Italians would fear that in an EU without Britain, France and Germany would become too dominant (though that could change if the Britophile Berlusconi loses power in 2006). Among the east Europeans there would be particular reluctance to expel Britain: the Poles and some of the Baltic peoples feel they have more in common with Britain’s Atlanticism and free market approach to economics than with what France and Germany have to offer.

Just how many of these countries would stand by Britain in its hour of need would depend, to some extent, on how the British behaved. If, having thrown the EU into chaos by rejecting the constitution, the British government made an effort to consult its partners on a way out of the crisis and if its tone were polite and constructive, it would find many friends in Europe. But suppose that the tabloid press used the referendum result as a trigger for a campaign in favour of withdrawal, that a Tory party revived by the referendum switched to a policy of ‘renegotiating’ Britain’s membership, that parts of the Labour Party sought to reconnect with working class voters by turning Eurosceptic and that politicians of all parties sought popularity through cheap attacks on Brussels, the French and the Germans; and suppose that the government lacked the mettle to speak up in favour of the Union. Britain would then find that its allies kept their distance, while they waved it towards the exit door.