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Brexit: a European Union without the United Kingdom?

A trickle of commentaries over recent months have asked for how much longer the United Kingdom (UK) is likely to remain in the European Union (EU). Some have even demanded that the British – who they see as selfish obstructionists – should simply pack up and leave. The same line has been put forward by a former French defence minister, who has asserted that the EU should simply pursue a strategic and military policy which leaves the British out. For some in the continent, the UK is the whipping boy for all that is wrong with the EU, as well as European integration more generally.

To be sure, the UK – especially the popular media – can sometimes misunderstand the nature of European integration. True, a certain number of British conservatives can sometimes sound as if they are still fighting old wars. But to assume that a UK withdrawal from the EU would simply leave mainland Europeans free to happily pursue their integrationist project is a profound mistake. A British withdrawal would have far-reaching geopolitical and economic consequences, which would soon begin to manifest themselves. In this fourth ‘Standpoint’, two of European Geostrategy’s Senior Editors, James Rogers and Luis Simon, weigh in on the so-called ‘Brexit’ debate.

1. Without the UK, ‘true’ Europeans shall finally have their opportunity to march towards full political union

Hardly. From the perspective of most medium and small EU Member States, the UK acts as a much-needed balance and counter-weight against any potential attempts by France and Germany to pull the strings of Brussels in a  bilateral context. Perhaps most importantly, by staying in the EU, London actually contributes to a healthy relationship between Berlin and Paris. Some in Paris seem to believe that with Britain out of the way, France’s hand within the EU would be strengthened. But that is quite a risky operating assumption. France’s leadership in the early decades of European integration is explained not by Britain’s absence from the European Community, but by Germany’s division, strategic vulnerability and dependence on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Today, a ‘Brexit’ would increase Germany’s power relative to other Member States, including France. That would widen the gap within the French-German ‘couple’ even further. And under such circumstances, Paris’ leverage would be reduced to threatening Berlin to give in to its demands of the day (whatever those might be) or else face all that uncomfortable talk of a‘ German Europe’, and even risk the complete collapse of the EU. Well-aware of the importance that restraint and accommodation bear to Germany’s future and not wanting to leave the fate of the European project at the mercy of ongoing French blackmail, Angela Merkel seems to be persuaded that Britain must stay in. She should hold on to that sentiment.

2. To get its ‘mojo’ back, the EU must reform and reconnect with the people, which is becoming increasingly difficult due to British ‘recalcitrance’

Quite the opposite. Some pundits are trying to sell the nomination of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as a litmus test of EU democracy. Juncker, the story goes, is the ‘official candidate’ of the European People’s Party. That party has won the most seats in the recent European elections and will have a majority in the next European Parliament: ‘democracy has thus spoken’. What a wonderful way to twist reality! Indeed, political parties and Parliaments are two key ingredients in modern parliamentary democracy. But only because they are directly connected to their (national) demos and are accountable to it. The fact that such connection is missing at the European level is not a superfluous detail.

Fact: most European voters would be surprised to hear there is such a thing as a European People’s Party. Fact: they have never heard of Jean-Claude Juncker either, and certainly don’t have the faintest idea they were casting a vote for him when they headed to the polls last May. Those who say the European public had better inform itself grossly misunderstand the meaning and spirit of democracy. EU reform must be grounded not on ‘grand standing’ and ‘pseudo-democratic’ claims by the EU elite, but on greater political accountability and economic competitiveness.

Its liberal-democratic credentials make Britain a key asset in any attempts to instill greater political transparency and economic openness into the EU process, two things that are badly needed if Europe is to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world. Additionally, the UK is (alongside France) amongst the few European countries that have a global approach to foreign and security policy, and thus amongst the few suited for a world whose geopolitical center of gravity is moving rapidly and far away from Europe. Without Britain’s voice, the EU is likely to descend into parochialism and isolationism.

3. ‘Brexit’ would end British obstructionism, paving the way for a more normal and amicable London-Brussels relationship

Don’t bet the house on that one! Nobody should assume that the UK will simply behave as a passive bystander on the edge of the European continent. Britain will not simply sit back and accept the writ of Brussels. London is at the heart of a great concentration of economic, political, cultural and maritime power. Outside, London would come to see the EU – as it has so many times in the past, in relation to other European hegemons – at best as a competitor and worst as a dangerous threat to be frustrated and repressed.

Moreover, without the UK, particularly its diplomatic, strategic and maritime resources, the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) would become even more pitiful than they already are. Worse, London would likely come to see them as dangerous challengers not only to British interests, but also to the centrality and future of NATO. Many Europeans – particularly in Eastern Europe – may also grow disinterested in both the CFSP and the CSDP simply because they would no longer include the UK, the one European power with the means to defend them. In addition, London would likely leverage its military strength to convince other Europeans, particularly those who worry about the future, to ignore the CSDP and focus exclusively on NATO. The UK might also seek to work up multilateral alternatives, such as the Northern Group or various bilateral arrangements, drawing in simultaneously US strategic assets through the ‘special relationship’.

Economically, too, the UK is no welterweight. As the world’s foremost financial centre, rivalled only by New York City and Tokyo, London is the economic heart of the EU. The British economy is advanced, diverse and in many sectors at the cutting edge of technology. Britain is also one of the few countries – along with France, the Irish Republic and Sweden – with a positive birth rate, and acts simultaneously as a giant vacuum for talent from around the world. Indeed, by 2050, the British are projected to be the most populous European nation, meaning they are likely to have the continent’s largest economy and biggest workforce, as well as the most potent diplomatic and military resources. Make no mistake, while it may currently seem to the contrary, the UK’s power will grow relative to other European countries in the coming decades.

So, particularly in light of the debate surrounding Juncker’s ‘bid’ for the presidency of the European Commission, other Europeans must ask themselves: while the UK can sometimes be difficult, is it either in their interests, or the European interest – particularly over the longer term – to force the British out of the EU, or to make it impossible for them to remain inside?

Vol. 6, No. 49 (2014)

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