Global Dialogues

Britain and the EU: In Need of a Mirror?

“We must confront and defeat the ugly stain of separatism seeping through the Union flag. […] Better an imperfect union than a broken one. Better an imperfect union than a perfect divorce. […] Together, we are stronger. […]Together, we are safer. […]Together, we are richer. […] Stronger. Safer. Richer. Fairer… Together.”

The above sentences come from a speech delivered by now Prime Minister and then the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, in December 2007. Over the

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last six years, Mr. Cameron has stated his case repeatedly, in December 2012 and in April 2013. In all those speeches on the benefits of international cooperation, the PM referred to Scotland and its status within the United Kingdom. Rather unsurprisingly, he has never applied the same line of argument when discussing the United Kingdom’s position within the European Union.

Distorted image

Over the last four decades, numerous publications sought to explain the complexity of British relations with the uniting Continent. While many factors are undoubtedly at play, their influence eventually seems to depend on yet another one, namely, a distorted image Britain has, not so much of the European Union, but of itself. Let’s take just one example.

In the coming years, Britain’s position within the Union will be conditioned to a large extent on its economic performance. So far, the anti-EU campaign in Britain was

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marketers against an overblown European state – a millstone round the economy’s neck. This narrative will be more and more difficult to sustain should major continental economies come out of the crisis sooner and more vigorously than Britain: a very likely scenario, given the fact that, after three years in power, Mr. Cameron’s government is now

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in charge of a smaller economy than the one it inherited in 2010.

Yet, the course of British economy, and consequently, the country’s political leverage, may change significantly as soon as the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement with the United States is signed. The new opening between the EU and the U.S. might shift the balance of power within the Union, though which way will this rebalancing go depends largely on Britain. During the negotiations, London might either lead the whole process in the name of Europe or distance itself from the EU and act rather as a middleman between the two sides, thus trying to revive its “special relationship” with Washington. The latter strategy is more likely both to occur and to backfire. Middlemen always run the risk of being cut off, and should the free trade agreement be signed without Britain, it will be a living proof to Washington that it can do good business with Europe without any mediation.

Split personality

A true Euro-American partnership is possible only if the European Union acts as a whole. Britain, because of its relatively recent loss of a global superpower status, quite understandably still has difficulty coming to terms with the new reality. The result is a split personality, which leads British diplomats to strive for conflicting goals. One day they want to play along the U.S. in the global Premiership League, the other they urge Brussels to grant Britain the status of a second Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein – countries which on the world stage usually display much humbler ambitions.

The question is, therefore, whether Britain can give up on the already tattered “special relationship” with the U.S. as well as “special treatment” in the EU, and realize it can do much more as a fully dedicated EU member that its distant partner. It is all the more important because just as there are no indispensable people, there are no indispensible countries. In his annual expose, a few months ago, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs advocated a radically pro-European policy, claiming that the troubles in the South and British “insular aloofness” present a great opportunity for Poland – already the EU’s sixth largest economy – to get to the EU’s “most inner decision-making circle”.

What is Europe about?

The major argument for united Europe made at the time of its creation was that it guaranteed peace. When Britain joined it in 1973, it was mainly about prosperity versus economic malaise. Now it is said the case for Europe is about power versus irrelevance. Such classifications are more misleading than revealing – a united Europe should be about all these issues. Together European countries are “stronger, richer and safer” – just as the members of that other union established in 1707 the British are so familiar with.

What therefore can Europe do to keep Britain in? Quite simply, the best solution seems to be to present the British with a mirror and ask them to take a closer look.