There has been a lot of talk about the UK’s role in the EU lately. First the backbenchers’ rebellion in the House of Commons, then Cameron’s attempts to define EU policy (aiming at a “repatriation of powers”) and now a Labour debate on how to deal with Europe. Moreover, EU member states are increasingly critical towards the UK (Sarkozy’s remarks are just one example). But what exactly are the problems of the UK’s approach to the EU?
The following text is a collection of unorganised and incoherent thoughts. Probably I should have written two proper essays or 5 blog posts. But I was too lazy and put everthing in one long blog post. It is also the result of living in the UK for the last several years and includes a mix of commentary about recent events but also more general points that I find interesting in the UK’s approach to the EU. Everything, as usual, unfinished and exaggerated and ‘thought’ in progress. Sorry for the lack of links – might include some in the coming days.
What are the underlying problems of the UK-EU relationship?
First of all, there are several underlying problems worth mentioning.
It seems to me that generally there is limited trust among UK decision makers in the politics and implementation efforts of other EU member states as well as EU institutions. Take for example the Schengen opt-out which basically tells the rest of the EU: We don’t trust you to secure the external border efficiently. Another example is the recent obsession with supranational court decisions (albeit mainly the Council of Europe) but it follows the same line of thought. Foreign judges can’t possibly be as good as our judges. Another example is the European Parliament: The idea that foreign MEPs (that are also elected!) are involved in shaping legislation is seen as a strange concept. Everything should be done in Westminster. Other democratically elected bodies are not good enough – because they are not British (an implicit assumption behind a lot of arguments). It is the focus on theses issues instead of looking at how the UK is involved in certain international bodies which makes public debates so hideous.
Furthermore the political culture of the UK seems to have a problem with the concept of ‘compromise’ and ‘negotiations’ which is vital for European institutions. The media also loves zero sum games – which does not help to frame the issue. This may have to do with the two party system and the missing tradition to form coalitions but it may well be laziness to understand complex issues. And even the governing coalition does not seem be able to communicate the nature and the necessity of ‘compromises’ in a convincing way.
The UK suffers from a political superiority complex. Especially politicians and commentators do not seem to understand that (1) the empire is gone – and will not come back, that (2) you can learn something from other countries (3) the war is over. All those tendencies create the impression of the “little Englanders” with a funny “island mentality”. Interestingly, the life in the UK is more cosmopolitan than in other parts of the EU and the majority of the population is very liberal and open-mindend. I think this is the real disconnect between the elite and the citizens in the UK.
At the same time, UK citizens are disconnected from the EU not only because Brussels is 2 hours away from London. No – the UK government secured opt-outs in virtually all areas which could benefit citizens directly and make the EU more visible in everyday life: no Euro, no Schengen, no social rights, no fundamental rights… It is not a surprise that citizens will not be interested, let alone develop trust in EU cooperation. The EU is reduced to a theoretical concept of a trade bloc. This mixed with a hostile media and attention seeking politicians will give you what is commonly described as “‘euroscepticism’.
There is obviously a huge problem with the way how UK media report about the EU. One the one hand side there is the tradition of tabloid campaign journalism which actively lobbies against anything European. The Murdoch press has bee opposed to the EU as soon as it realised that competition policy might also have an impact on the Murdochs. However, I don’t think the Murdoch press is the problem. The main problem in the UK is actually the Daily Mail – and this goes beyond the EU stories, it has an impact on democratic culture. The Daily Mail is read by a large middle class who tends to think of it as a ‘normal’ newspaper – which I think is an essential problem in the UK. (but this is a topic for another blogpost) One the other hand you can find inaccuate EU reporting also in broadsheets. However, tabloid ‘EU stories’ have created an atmosphere which can be characterised by suspicion and fear of the ‘other’ and a general feeling that foreigners and immigrats are bad and everything foreign (especially ”Brussels’) cannot be trusted. Let’s not forget that the media concsiously misreports EU issues and actively develops euromyths. I don’t believe that this is because of lazy journalists – it is far too frequent, it only happens in the UK so this must be actively pursued by certain interests! However, the power of the hostile media landscape defined to a large extent what is acceptable for politicians to say ‘on Europe’.
The public debate “on Europe” is stuck in a frame that only knows “europhiles” and “eurosceptics”. As long as both words are seen as insults there is not much hope to move the debate forward. It is not helpful to address the real problems of the EU or the UK-EU relationship. Especially political parties need to develop new discoursive frames to create a useful debate “on Europe”. New frames are desperately needed. Examples could be a “social Europe”, a “liberal Europe” or a “stable Europe”. However, in order to do that you need to accept that the EU is here to stay and that different policies should be decided on the different levels with the appropriate democratic control.
We need better EU politicians. The UK as well as most other Menber states must start sending better politicians to Brussels and Strassbourg. The European Parliament can only work better if citizens send their best and brightest MEPs to Strassbourg and Brussels. The European Commission can only work with Commissiners that are multilingual and competent in their respective policy area. Parties and the media must stop seeing ‘Brussels’ as the end of a career but rather as a political choice that is as important as being an MP in Westminster.
Languages are a huge problem in the UK. There will be problems as long as the value of language teaching is contested. One benefit of the EU is to look for jobs and opportunities in other EU countries. However, this only works if pupils learn as many languages as possible. Learning a language needs to become compulsary again in UK education – from the first year to the last year!
There is an obsession of the current UK government to frame everything in the ‘national interests’ using an outdated concept of ‘power’ and ‘sovereinty’. This may well be a problem of the Conservative party but the real problem is the narrow definition of ‘national interests’. If everything is framed within zero sum games it is very difficult to win anything. At the moment, the government seems to have a very simplisitic view on power and influence which is also at the heart of its problems with the EU.
And one final thing: The UK is a European country. So, please Brits, stop saying “If you go to Europe…” or “In Europe things are different…” As long as you define everything according to a “them and us” pattern, nothing will change.
What is the way forward for the UK?
A general point which needs to be addressed is that compromise is often painful but necessary. This may not be an integral part of the UK’s political culture but it is important in an interdependent world and even more so in the EU. Knowledge about the value of cooperation is another broader concept that is often forgotten in the UK debate. The focus on “national interests”, “souvereignty” etc will not help the UK in long term.
The UK needs to realise that you can only change the EU if it is an integral part of it. If you decide to leave the EU you will end up implementing EU policy without the ability to change EU policy (as outlined by David Cameron). A more complex point however is the following. You can only change a certain EU policy if you are an equal part of this specific EU policy. If you have an opt-out nobody will consult you, nobody will listen to you and you will not be able to change anything.<
If a two-speed Europe is not in the interest of the UK there is only one way forward for the UK: The UK needs to increase its EU bargaining power!
For example: If the UK is serious about changing the budget in the future it will need to give up the budget rebate. The budget is important as it provides strategic opportunities to reform the EU. But if one country pays less because of some dodgy deal 30 years ago it will not be taken seriously. The world has changed since Thatcher. At the same time the UK could win some friends in Eastern Europe by doing this. This however can only be addressed if the UK government is ready to accept that it could indeed be in the “national interest” to pay more in exchange of ‘influence’. But this is a difficult sell especially if your ‘red lines’ are rigid and your ‘national interest’ is static.
Another example: Despite the current crisis, the eurozone is the most important market for the UK. Recently, David Cameron and George Osborne called for more fiscal coordination within the eurozone because the UK wants a stable currency zone to trade with. Now, the problem is that the UK is not a eurozone member, so one can understand Nicolas Sarkozy’s ager regarding the UK’s attempt to lecture how the eurozone should be run. Using the current eurozone crisis to start a debate on repatriating some mysterious powers (which are never properly defined!) is exactly the wrong way to secure a stable eurozone. It will not give you more leverage but only make you sound ridiculous in the ears of French or German politicians. And remember: In the worst case scenario the eurozone will establish parallel institutions and negotiating new treaties outside the present EU framework – and the UK would have no say whatsoever. The bargaining chip is unfortunately (at least for the political elite) full eurozone membership. The UK government should announce to join (important is the word ‘announce’!) in a reformed eurozone at some undefined point in the future. This may give the prime minister a seat at the table of the eurozone summits and in every other future political/fiscal cooperation mechanism. The bargaining power is quite sophisticated. No direct obligation to join the euro but an influence in shaping the governance of the eurozone based on a vague promise to join one day if reforms have been implemented successfully.
Just two points that are often neglected by UK politicians and commentators: (1) Germany will do everything to save the Euro. And I mean everything. It may be hard to believe for some UK commentators, but a break- up of the Euro is not on the agenda. Only British newspapers speculate about it. (2) All Eastern European EU member states are legally obliged to join the Euro in the future including states such as Poland. Denmark has an opt-out but its currency is linked to the eurzone which makes the opt out purely symbolical. That leaves the UK and Sweden – the latter is thinking about holding a new referendum after the crisis. The danger is not a two-speed Europe – but a core-EU of up to 26 member states.
Another example. You can’t advocate for a better EU foreign policy and saying at the same time that nothing needs to change. It is a failure of the British diplomacy not to use the EU in more strategic way. After all, British diplomats are among the best out there and are highly respected within the international system. But why is Britain opposed to making the EEAS work, why not develop joint consular services or coordinate foreign policy on the ground, why not save money and increase efficiency with a military coordination unit in Brussels? It is pure hypocrisy to criticise on the EU’s lack of power without trying to change things. Again, this has to do with an outdated concept of sovereignty which places more importance on symbols and traditions than addressing the real problems.
I think the UK elite consistently failed to build strong EU alliances. Especially a strong British-German alliance within the EU would be desirable. There is a lot of common ground between the two countries – provided you are prepared to learn from another country. There is a substantial part within the German elite which can identify with the UK’s philosophy on trade and markets. In contrast, the French state centric economic model does not really correspond to German realities. However, the German-French axis mainly exists because of historical reasons – and the lack of alternatives. I think the Germans would rather run the EU with the Brits than with the French if the Brits were a bit more involved in everything and would not always look for the opt-out. The truth is that Germany and Britain are both large countries that are obviously linked through history (and the British obsession with the wars might not have helped in the past), languages are not that different and even the Queen has German ancestors. People in Germany are fond of the English language and British culture. So wouldn’t it make sense for British politicians to develop closer links to Germany?
You want to change the CAP, liberalise services in the EU, reform the EU budget, clearly define what policy is decided on which level, creating a better EU foreign policy? Well, I think Berlin might be interested. But from a Berlin perspective, the UK is already seen as semi-detached from the EU – if not fully detached. Basically nobody in Berlin cares what British politicians say on ‘Europe’ or what they want during the next round of treaty negotiations.
Well, this is something David Cameron should change. But he can only change it if he offers something in return.