Is the EU better off without the UK?

José Ignacio Torreblanca. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

10 January 2012

David Cameron’s refusal to join the new Treaty could end up destroying his political career, and it could also do a great deal of harm to the EU.

Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has made a big mistake. That much is obvious. It was a real beginner’s mistake, given that the objective of a veto is to prevent someone from doing something, not that everyone gets on with doing it except you. That’s exactly what unanimity (which is the gracious term for the so-called right to veto) is for. Thus, if what Cameron wanted was to safeguard the UK finance industry in exchange for a new Treaty (namely the “fiscal compact”), the result says it all: the Treaty will still go ahead (albeit with some doubts and legal uncertainties which will serve to make the process even more complicated) while the abovementioned safeguards are far more improbable today than before.

Officially speaking, Cameron is right to say that his “no” does not mean the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. London will continue to be a full member of the Lisbon Treaty (although with some voluntary exclusions). But the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is voluntary; nobody can be thrown out. Therein lies the issue: in the act of voluntary withdrawal. Cameron has opened up a Pandora’s box which could very well place him in a situation he never wanted to be in, namely that of having to hold a referendum on whether or not the UK remains in the EU. Paradoxically, this would mean he would have to ask the British to vote in favor of remaining in the EU, and what’s more, he would very probably fail to convince them, a double whammy that would effectively mean the end of his political career.

Meanwhile Sarkozy, who never misses a chance to make himself look good, has reaped the benefits by riding to glory on the back of the UK’s marginalization. For many others, frustrated by decades of British obstructionism, the exclusion of the UK is also good news. Nevertheless, the supposed benefits of the secondary role of the UK could be questioned from at least two perspectives.

First, diehard federalists should not ignore the fact that not all the problems that prevent the EU from achieving true political union come from London. Paris and Berlín, in their own way, are equally reticent when it comes to achieving true economic and monetary union, as we have seen in recent days. They prefer to govern a de facto Europe using an intergovernmental directory in which they comprise all the weight and EU institutions play a secondary role (particularly the Commission and Parliament). Once the euphoria about Cameron’s snub has died down, all the old problems will be back on the table.

Second, the non-participation of the UK in the future intergovernmental treaty will also harm the EU, given that that the 26 will find themselves constrained in using the EU Commission and Courts for the fiscal union they want to achieve, except in terms of administration and sanctions. Hence not only has British obstructionism not disappeared, it has actually grown. It is worth asking how it is possible that what was absolutely essential on Thursday morning (namely the replacement of the existing Treaty with a new Treaty) is no longer necessary (and it is said that a new Treaty that doesn’t change or affect the current Treaty). It’s actually quite mind boggling.

And lastly, some of us believe that the participation of the UK is essential for Europe to have a strong position in the world and a major foreign policy and security policy. Sarkozy himself has experienced this in the sands of Libya, where he couldn’t count on help from Germany, which was determined to vote with Russia and China in the Security Council, but he could rely on the British, with whom he could also count to sow the seeds of a common defense policy thanks to strategic agreements signed by Cameron and Sarkozy to pool military forces. Hence, doing without the UK would be an acceptable price to pay for true political union in which EU members enjoyed equal rights and where we had strong and representative EU institutions, including a strong voice on the world stage and common foreign policy. However, this does not appear to be the path that Paris and Berlin want to follow, believing as they do in a far more minimalist Europe subject to strict control by governments. And so, in the current circumstances, the cost of Cameron’s mistake may be paid by the whole of Europe, not just him.

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