Awkward to the last: Britain and the EU

Posted in: Brexit, Political ideologies, UK politics

Professor David Galbreath is Professor of International Security and Dean of the University of Bath’s Department of Social and Policy Sciences

Following the Supreme Court ruling on the UK Government’s plans to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Theresa May delivered a 1-page draft bill to Parliament which purposed ‘to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’. What will most likely become the European Union Act of 2017 signals the beginning of the end for UK membership of the most economically and politically powerful trading bloc in history.

In his book An Awkward Partner, Professor Stephen George set out to characterise the British role in the EU, stating that while the UK became a member of what was then the European Communities in 1973, it was never all the way in. For European integrationists, the UK was a regular break from ‘an ever-deeper partnership’ – while for European federalists, the UK encouraged state sovereignty that allowed for ‘variable speeds’ of integration. In other words, the UK became a sui generis member of a sui generis institution.

Author of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty when he was Secretary-General of the EU Convention in 2002-03, Lord Kerr set out in a recent talk just how ‘awkward’ and ‘sui generis’ the UK would continue to be – even through the act of withdrawal from membership of the EU. Entitled “Brexit: Will Divorce be damaging, and could it be amicable?”, Lord Kerr’s public lecture – which was hosted by the Institute for Policy Research on campus at the University of Bath – evidenced the argument that in addition to being damaging, Brexit would be very unlikely to be amicable either at home or in Europe.

Lord Kerr reminded us that it was Margaret Thatcher who made the strongest argument for UK membership of the EU. The UK was “stronger in Washington because we were seen to be strong in Brussels, and stronger in Brussels because we were seen to be strong in Washington.” Furthermore, the country was comfortable to assume an identity that was both British and European at that time, which followed the post-war settlement, the major political movements in the region and the quick turnaround in trade after the 1973 accession. Thatcher knew that Britain had an awkward role in the EU, but that it was a role which suited Britain in terms of where it wanted to be in Europe and the world.

Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair followed suit with a vision for Britain that was both strongly European and Atlanticist. Even more, both Major and Blair sought to enlarge the EU so that it would include more states which were like the UK, and would seek a federal rather than integrated Europe. Denmark, which joined at the same time as the UK and was similarly inclined towards Brussels, was joined by Finland and Sweden in 1995. Following this, the augmentation of the bloc continued with the 2004 Enlargement, which brought 10 new member states (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia); further enlargements in 2007 to include Bulgaria and Romania; and the 2013 accession of Croatia. Successive British prime ministers saw this as a way to slow down European integration – and, to all intents and purposes, it worked.

Yet even before the 2004 enlargement the UK (as well as Ireland and Sweden) had opened its economy to EU accession state populations, with the greatest EU migration to the UK being in the years prior to their home country’s inclusion in the bloc.

While EU migration has continued to decline, especially following the 2007-2012 financial crisis, the impact of EU and world immigration to the UK has had identifiable impacts on many communities across the UK – especially in areas that voted to remain in the EU, an irony not lost on remainers. Whereas net migration from the EU has declined over time, the percentage of the population that was not born in the UK has increased. The view on immigration was the single most important indicator for voting to remain or leave the EU in the 23 July 2016 referendum.

The cost of ‘divorce’ is high, and Lord Kerr laid out well the negotiations that will have to go on around trade, industries, banking, and the atomic energy sector – not to mention the status of UK citizens throughout the EU, as well as the EU citizen in the UK. Controlling immigration may give a sense of power to many communities, but it will not solve the problems that existed before the referendum and, in some cases, will be exacerbated by it.

The mistake that the UK government is making is assuming that British industry and products (though not labour) will be needed in Europe going forward, despite the fact that in a globalised world there are many economies that will thrive on being an alternative to the UK in European trade and finance. Already Germany and the Netherlands are receiving marked increases in business and capital that previously would have gone to the UK, and from those that would have invested in the UK but will not following the triggering of Article 50.

To say that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are the only winners in this situation gives the European economies too little credit and discounts the power of new regional economic blocs that just might use this opportunity to build a real alternative to Europe and the UK as a whole. Now that would be awkward.

This post was inspired by a recent IPR Public Lecture given by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, author of Article 50. You can read more about the lecture, and find links to the video and podcast, here.

Posted in: Brexit, Political ideologies, UK politics


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