Sunday, November 23, 2014

Does Europe Need Britain?

NEW YORK – Many people in the United Kingdom believe that their country can do perfectly well outside the European Union. Members of the UK Independence Party even think that Britain would do better, as do a considerable number of Conservative “Euro-skeptics.” They dream of Britain as a kind of Singapore of the West, a commercial powerhouse ruled from the City of London.

That is why Prime Minister David Cameron felt obliged to offer the British people a referendum on a simple question: in or out. Cameron does not personally want Britain to leave the EU, but he knows that some form of democratic consent is needed for future British governments to settle the matter.

The year of the promised referendum, 2017, is comfortably far away. Many things may change in the meantime. If the eurozone forges ahead, what countries outside the zone do may not matter much anymore. Moreover, other Europeans may end up agreeing with Cameron that ever closer political union in Europe is undesirable – if they have a choice, that is, which is by no means certain.

In the meantime, there is another question to be considered: how many Europeans want Britain to stay in the EU? The answer depends partly on nationality. The smaller northern countries, such as the Netherlands, have traditionally wanted Britain to be in. Without Britain, they would be bossed around by France, and even more so by Germany. And yet, as memories of World War II fade, more and more people in the Netherlands and Scandinavia feel content to be under Germany’s powerful wings.

But Germany itself would probably prefer to keep its British partner, rather than face the Mediterranean countries alone. Culture still matters. And the Germans have much in common with the British – more than they do with the Greeks, or even the Italians.

France is a different matter. According to a recent poll, 54% of the French would prefer Britain to leave the EU. This, too, might have something to do with culture. Britain never was very popular in France. President Charles de Gaulle blocked British entry into the European Economic Community twice. Like many French leaders, de Gaulle was deeply suspicious of the “Anglo-Saxons.” France, in his grandiose view, was the natural guardian of European values, which, according to him, were coextensive with French values.

In 1930, Winston Churchill said of his country: “We are with Europe, but not of it.” It is a sentiment still shared by many in Britain. De Gaulle agreed. As he once put it, somewhat ironically, Britain would lose its identity as a member of a European union, and this would be a great pity.

But culture and nationality, or even Gaullist chauvinism, cannot explain everything. There is an important political dimension to the pro- or anti-British sentiments in Europe. The French who said they wanted Britain to leave the EU were largely on the left, while many who held the opposite view were further to the right. It is not entirely clear why, though it is probably because the right includes neo-liberals, who share the British attitude to business and free trade.

Like leftists everywhere, the French left favors a large degree of state control of the economy, together with technocratic rather than liberal solutions to social and economic problems. This type of thinking has played a vital role in the development of European institutions.

Jean Monnet, one of the godfathers of European unification, embodied this tendency – a born bureaucrat who distrusted politicians. Democratic politics is messy and divisive, and riddled with compromises. Monnet hated all that. He was obsessed by the ideal of unity. And he wanted things to get done, uncompromised by political wheeling and dealing.

Monnet and other European technocrats were not exactly opposed to democracy, but in their zeal to unify Europe’s diverse nation-states, they often appeared to ignore it. The Eurocrats knew what was best for Europe’s citizens, and they knew what needed to be done. Too much public debate, or interference from citizens and their political representatives, would only slow things down. Hence the typical EU language about “unstoppable trains” and “irreversible decisions”: citizens are not supposed to question the wisdom of great planners.

This emphasis on planning was one reason why the “European project” always appealed to the left – and not only in France. The technocratic belief in ideal models is inherently utopian. Those on the left also shared a deep aversion to nationalism, born of two disastrous European wars.

The British, whose Churchillian nationalism helped them to prevail against Hitler’s attacks, never shared this aversion. And their deep pride in Britain’s liberal-democratic tradition made them suspicious of meddling Brussels bureaucrats. Some of this is doubtless the result of chauvinism, even xenophobia. How can one possibly share political authority with foreigners?

But it would be wrong simply to dismiss British doubts about the European drive toward greater unity. It is not just a nationalist reaction. Many Europeans now resent the expanding powers of EU bureaucracy. British resistance to grand European plans is the democratic grit in an enterprise that could become authoritarian, despite having the best intentions, and should serve as a necessary corrective to the utopianism of the technocrats.

Those who favor European unification should take criticisms of its political flaws very seriously. Doing so is the only chance to ensure that a united Europe, whatever form it takes, will be democratic, as well as economically beneficial. That is why Europe needs Britain: not as an offshore center of banking and commerce, but as a difficult, questioning, stubbornly democratic partner.

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    1. CommentedFrank Dean

      The UK can be useful in Europe and it is unlikely it will leave, with many people below apparently thinking it is certain showing a misunderstanding of the situation. A small fraction of UK politicians want the UK out of Europe, the same goes for the media - ignoring the idiocy of the Daily Mail, of course - and academics. This as demonstrated by most peoples' worry of the referendum leading to exit. The UK, as Ian Burma rightly points out, can be of use in Europe. Europe is too obsessed with regulations and red tape, which would find agreement from sections of society in all countries in Europe: the UK is right to point this out. Framing it in a nationalist manner, in terms of power, is of concern. The UK needs to become a more effective player in the European Union. Some people seem to think being against certain policies in Europe makes one a Euro-skeptic. This probably why there are so many defunct policies. Discourse needs rationalising, not seen as the UK referendum will be, an IN-OUT matter! EU federalist project need rejuvenating, moaning about anyone who wants change, casting them a euro-skeptic is to to not debate the issue constructively.

    2. CommentedEMILIANO BRAVO

      It´s obvious for the standard citizen that politicians in some continental countries are far away from them. Britain may not be the paradigm of democracy but much surpasses Spain.

    3. Commentedzoe keller

      UK has always held back the European integration project because its citizens do not believe in it, and do not want it. This is not a crime nor an offense, but a feeling to take into account.
      Eurozone countries instead want to strengthen their relationships, push beyond the sharing of their sovereignty, and build a strong economical and political continental block in the new global context.
      If all UK wants is a common free market, the European Economic Area (EEA) is the right tool for the purpose. It allows its members (at the moment Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) to participate in the EU's internal market without being members of the EU. Lets make the appropriate agreement and we'll be friends forever.

    4. CommentedCelt Darnell

      The problem this author (who, as I understand it, is Dutch) fails to address is the gulf between the views of the British people and those on the continent.
      The reality is that most Britons are simply not prepared to be part of a European federation/confederation. End of story. Just as Canadians are not prepared to become part of the United States or Americans are not prepared to form a political union with the Latin American nations, the British are not prepared to surrender their national sovereignty.
      Either the EU abandons it's goal of becoming a federation or the British leave.
      Let's be blunt -- it will be the latter.
      There is no meeting of minds here. The UK's departure is going to take place one way or another.

    5. CommentedPatrick Lietz

      Is Europe bankrupt and will it break apart? Possibly, but the finances of the UK, the US and Japan are clearly worse off. With the western world now ostensibly on a path of beggar thy neighbor policies, the more pertinent question is who will break apart first, and who is going to be the last entity standing.

      Taking that perspective, a Brexit would come close to an economic folly for Britain. However, it is quite interesting to read that a lot of British seem to be convinced that Europe needs them more than Britain needs Europe, simply because it imports (sic!) significant quantities of goods.

      I consider the Brexit to be inevitable and suggest that it should be hastened so as not create a state of prolonged uncertainty. People on the move should not be stopped.

    6. CommentedFaruk Timuroglu

      Euro is a failed project since the beginning. One currency for 17 sovereignty can’t work. Are Technocrats in Brussels who are occupied with the size and shape of cucumbers supposed to solve EU’s growing problems?

    7. CommentedAndrew Man

      With a bankrupt Eurozone there is no need to negiotiate terms, the UK should simply dictate them or leave? As for all the cherry picking hype, the EU has been doing this for years? First they cherry picked Greece, then Ireland and Portugal, after that Spain and Italy. The French want the UK 'out', as Hollande needs to be cherry picked next! With zero democracy in the EU, next bailout looks to be for the Russian gangsters in Cyprus! Time for a big reform?

    8. CommentedMK Anon

      Europe has a parliament who picks "technocrats" or "political leaders" that manage to gather approval... which is exactly the same as Britain: who voted directly for Cameron? While many countries of the despised south of Europe are more democratic according to your own definition (i.e. directly vote for the political leader - i.e. the president). Not sure a country with no citizens - but only the subjects of her Majesty the queen - will necessarily be a good thing for democracy. As far as I see, what Cameron does is "take it or leave it", i.e. the Europe he wants or not at all. This is far from the political consensus that needs to be reach in order to share fairly the burden of Europeanisation and also the benefits of this union.
      It's a very dangerous game they play, they have much to loose. Continental Europe might loose the benefit of a fervent defender of predatory speculation.. but the city will have a hard time, because it seems clear all stocks from the EU will have to be traded within the EU, by a technocrat rules.
      And the good music will still cross the channel !

    9. CommentedAndrew Man

      This decision has little to do with Europe keeping Britain as a European partner, just simple mathematics? The EU is bankrupt, has been since 2008. Anyone arguing that a British exit from the Union would be catastrophic for London, is just drivel. Reality is much worse, with the collapse of Cyprus, needing yet another EU bailout, there is now a wounded creature in Brussels, with a big catastrophe fest going on? If the UK leaves it would destroy the entire Euro project- they need us much more than the UK needs Europe and we should insist on reform.

    10. CommentedShane Beck

      One thing is certain, whether Britain leaves the EU or it's own accord via referendum or is nudged through the exit door via the EU refusal to repatriate matters of sovereignty back to Britain, it is hard to foresee Britain getting back in again. The presence of Britain has been a major impediment to the unification project as a whole and the technocrats in Brussels would be quietly happy to see Britain leave.
      But in any case the author's premise is flawed- that democracy is a necessary or even beneficial component of the European Union project