The UK and Europe
Fog in the Channel
László Andor / Jul 2016
Photo: European Union
The relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom is going through a fundamental transformation. The coincidence of three major events in Summer 2016 accelerates this change. The Brexit referendum result is of course the most important development, but the publication of the Chilcot Report on the UK entering the misguided Iraq war in 2003 also has great significance, and so does the less than glorious performance of England in the EURO 2016 football tournament hosted by France.
The England team’s disgraceful exit from EURO 2016 was the least harmful of the three, and one can settle that issue by noting that England as a team has consistently underperformed in recent decades despite the English Premier League being the highest profile and most expensive soccer business on Earth. But with EU migrants overrepresented among Premier League players as well as managers, football also helps asking the right questions about the impact of the EU single market on British society in general.
The fact that benefits of the single market do not automatically trickle down to disadvantaged regions and social groups played a major role in the referendum result. English people outside metropolitan areas felt disenfranchised politically and economically, while UKIP, reinforced by egocentric Tory politicians, ensured that their frustration is directed to Brussels instead of London and in particular Westminster.
The functioning of the EU is surely far from perfect and there is ample room for debates about how to repair the EU and especially the monetary union. However, the Leave campaign was not interested at all in a fair diagnosis and appropriate medicine. Instead, they vastly exaggerated the flaws of the EU and portrayed it as an evil power Britain needs to escape from.
I took part in some discussions in the campaign period, including the Festival of Ideas in York, where I found an open minded audience eager to hear the arguments from both sides. However, I also heard the representative of the Leave campaign saying that the EU intends to take away the UK seat in the UN Security Council as well as the IMF. Such claims surely had to be invented by someone experienced in political psychology and blessed with a capacity of unfettered imagination – and lacking elementary decency.
The referendum result suggests that British people felt oppressed by Brussels. I believe this feeling is primarily due to public discourse being dominated by a tabloid press that created and maintained the image of the Brussels monster. This made it hard to articulate positive arguments about the EU. And while the Remain side focused on the economic consequences of Brexit, the Leave side went well beyond the borders of reality in their presentation of the downside of EU membership.
With the EU constantly spoken about as the “albatross around our neck”, people felt they had nothing to lose but their chains with Brexit, and in exchange a brave new world was to be won. The quality Daily Telegraph presented the choice between hope and fear. Very few actually explained that within the EU the UK has had the most customized type of membership. Being in the single market but outside the Eurozone and Schengen, the UK has enjoyed a good deal of autonomy. EU membership and policies ensured that major comparative advantages of Britain like the financial services sector or higher education deliver their full potential.
Further examples demonstrate that London has had a real clout over the Brussels agenda. For a longer period, a “smart regulation” programme has prevented unnecessary mushrooming of EU legislation and delivered some necessary updates and upgrades. The EU budget was cut to a level below 1 per cent of the EU GDP, which is a policy many of us would disagree with, but demonstrated what David Cameron managed to achieve with a little help from his friends.
If British influence has weakened in the EU in recent years, it happened primarily due to a decision by David Cameron. In 2009, in order to please (or appease) EU-sceptics within his party, he moved the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. This may sound like a formality but the truth is that in all EU institutions the coordination within political families functions as an important channel of information and influence.
UK nationals have also been underrepresented within the EU staff, despite being fluent in one of the three working languages. This is not because of bias or discrimination against them, but at least partly because of not so attractive salaries in Brussels which defy the so popular “gravy train” mythology.
Cameron thought this diminished influence could be substituted by forming a special relationship with Europe’s most powerful leader: Angela Merkel. The opportunity for that came when the German chancellor lost her complementer other half - Nicolas Sarkozy - in 2012.
David Cameron’s visit to Berlin in April 2013, and Angela Merkel’s visit to London in February 2014 signaled a new alliance. Cameron helped Merkel pushing a competitiveness agenda, which within the Eurozone was used to delay and derail the moves towards banking union and fiscal union. Merkel, on the other hand, helped Cameron to develop an answer to the immigration challenge. However, Merkel actually convinced Cameron to avoid questioning the right of EU citizens to free movement. Instead, the social benefits of EU migrants (and their families) was defined as an area where the solutions should be found.
With German support, Cameron included the adjustment of mobile workers’ benefits in his (re-negotiation) four points at the end of 2015. Central European governments, whose citizens had the most to lose out of such changes, eventually accepted the concessions out of gratefulness for earlier UK support for Eastward enlargement. However, the changes Cameron brought home from the negotiations appeared insignificant at a time when an ever louder Leave campaign was banging the drums “to take back control”.
Fiddling with the benefits of mobile EU-workers does not resolve anything and did not impress anyone. Leave voters either believed that Cameron did not reform the EU sufficiently, or he did not do it to the right direction. Or they just thought he was not a credible person anyway, since until February his language on the EU was hardly distinguishable from Euro-sceptics - while during the campaign his pro-EU passion almost made his former deputy, Nick Clegg blush.
Cameron’s gamble with the referendum now appears as a giant individual mistake, comparable to Tony Blair’s decision to accompany the US to the Iraq war without clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction. These developments do not only weaken the UK’s standing in Europe but also the way it can compensate for diminishing European influence by being a major military power and having a “special relationship” with US.
Lessons must be learned on both sides of the Channel, and not only in the area of political communication or management, but also political economy. There have and there will always be enemies of European integration, but they will only appeal to wider audiences if the EU fails to deliver economic growth and do it in an inclusive way. Therefore the Brussels debates in the current situation have to focus more on how to share prosperity. The EU needs to take a stronger and not weaker role in related social and regional policies, instead of leaving them to the member states.