Prime Minister David Cameron is betting the rest of his time in office, what Americans call his ‘political capital’, on renegotiating the position of the UK within the EU. Either he will be successful and Britain will come out stronger or he will fail and be remembered – for good or ill – as the PM who got Britain out of Europe. Let us consider how the UK got to this point before discussing both sides of the issue.
The European Union has fundamentally been an economic union. Principally, a classical Liberal free-market economy, where people, goods and services would be allowed to move more freely to better facilitate economic growth. As the world’s second largest economy, the European Union has been quite successful in this respect.
However, where the UK is economically balanced throughout its regions, the EU has an economic imbalance with great inequality through the zone. In the UK, economic opportunities are relatively equal, meaning economic migrations (i.e., seeking better opportunities elsewhere) are not as dramatic as we have seen in the EU. Thousands from less developed economies in Eastern Europe have migrated west to the UK seeking better opportunities. This has seen an influx of low-skilled workers in the UK, which will help the economy here but not in Eastern Europe. As a result, the EU continues to be an imbalanced economic zone (as the Eurozone crisis demonstrated in 2009. However, the troubles we are seeing today are fundamentally political.
“Europe is not the United States: a German is a German, French are French and the British are British.”
Politically, the EU has aimed to be “the United States of Europe”. The United States is a federalist political system built on a classical Liberal view of society where the rights of the individual are paramount to the beneit of civic society. Political power – the coercive aspect of government to make and enforce laws – is diffuse between the State and Federal governments, each with its own responsibilities as outlined in the Constitution. Even more important, Americans are one nation – bound together by a common identity, language and culture. Granted, the US is a diverse place with many people, but it is the idea of being one nation which holds it together (the national motto: E pluribus unum – out of many, one).
Europe is not the United States. If you ask any European about their nationality, they will say their country first and European second if at all. A German is a German, French are French and the British are British (and English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh). There is no equivalent European national identity.
Nationalism was born in Europe and has not had a good history there. Both World Wars can be viewed as nationalistic excess with consequences for millions of people. No one in Europe is keen to go down this well worn path again. Yet the idea of the nation still persists in the minds of many throughout Europe. Without a strong European identity for millions to adhere to, the European project is jeopardized.
Yet the EU is committed to maintaining the free movement of people, goods and services. Politically, the UK maintains control of its borders as it is not part of the Schengen zone but it must allow easy access to EU nationals for living and working in the UK as it would British nationals. Fundamentally, nations have always had control over their borders and the right to determine who may enter and who may stay. The EU has eroded this prerogative, which is essentially an erosion of sovereignty.
Critics of the EU point to sovereignty as the defining issue at stake in deciding if the UK should stay. Weakened state sovereignty is to be expected in federalist systems, the difficulty is in balancing the power between states and a central government determining who does what. The solution in the EU has been to centralise power in Brussels. The difficulty is determining how much power ought Brussels have over state sovereignty to function effectively within the EU.
Is Britain better off today than yesterday due to its membership in the EU? Certainly from an economic standpoint having easy access to the European market has benefitted the UK. Yet arguably the increase in immigration to the UK has helped to mitigate these benefits, at least in the eyes of everyday Britons. Britons may be better off in pure economic terms (i.e., in quality of life) yet they see little benefit in the partnership. This does not mean they want to severe all ties with the Continent, rather they want to be able to deal with Europe on their own terms and not through a bureaucracy in Brussels which does not have their best interests in mind.
“I do not think Britons are tired of Europe, but they are tired of the European Union.”
What Prime Minister David Cameron does have right is he is trying to reform the UK’s position from within the EU. This is a sensible approach rather than giving up on the great European project all together. Yet this places Brussels in a difficult position. If they accept Cameron’s reforms then it sets a precedent for other states, and such actions may undermine the cohesiveness necessary for the EU to function as a supranational state (which is the ultimate goal). Alternatively, if they refuse then it makes leaving the EU far more likely. Brussels may even view these reforms as unnecessary, perhaps seeing their efforts thus far as problem free and the UK is just being British.
I do not think Cameron’s reforms will be successful in moving the electorate to stay, nor are the people of Britain inclined to. This would not mark the beginning of the end for the European Union, but it would set a precedent for other states to follow and the economic uncertainty could lead to problems in an already poor global economy.
Yet as an independent state, Britain would be able to renegotiate its treaties with the EU or its members in a stronger position. Nor is it likely for the EU or any of its member states to turn away from the UK. I do not think Britons are tired of Europe, but they are tired of the European Union.