November 3, 2008

The European Union has already come too far with the project of closer integration to stop now. At least that was the view of former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, speaking at a conference in London last month. He went on to suggest that further European integration should not be constrained by politically reticent member states.  If countries such as Britain do not want to move to the next stage they should be offered special status that preserves close ties, but doesn’t require specific policy commitments, much like current EU relations with Switzerland and Norway. As Giscard points out, this would “avoid them acting as a brake on the progress of others.”


Picking up on this recently in an article for the Telegraph, Norman Tebbit, a former Conservative politician in the Thatcher government, stated that Britain could never be part of a federal Europe, and argued that the focus should switch from an unattainable union, towards a Europe that accommodates both willing and skeptical member states through the creation of a new European Republic comprised of “those nations willing to enter a complete political union of their own.” His argument is as follows:

Like de Gaulle half a century ago, Giscard has recognized that Britain would no more fit into the 21st-century European state than it would have fitted into the European empires of the 16th, 19th or 20th centuries. His proposal that Britain (and possibly some others) might be left marking time where we are today while the others advance at the double, would indeed open the way to the ever closer union of most members - but would hardly be a lasting political structure.


It is difficult to see that anything could provide the glue to bind together nations as different as Finland and Portugal, Ireland and Romania or Spain and Belgium. Giscard may well find the EU more likely to unravel into a new West European Republic of six or 10 states willing to sacrifice their identities to gain the undoubted advantages that the United Kingdom has enjoyed in its own union of England, Scotland, Ulster [sic] and Wales, and 15 or 20 still sovereign states in a new treaty relationship

Tebbit cites Britain’s historical seclusion from European affairs as a precedent for continuing disengagement from the EU. Yet what he fails to comprehend is just how necessary integration is in the modern world. The challenges we face today – terrorism, energy, climate change, disease – are international issues that do not adhere to artificially constructed political boundaries. The reason Britain could at times remain aloof from the geopolitical machinations of the continent was because of the now absent protection offered by the Royal Navy. No longer. Without an empire to focus on, there is no reason why Britain should not commit to the European project. It is politically regressive to retreat from a process which however flawed, nevertheless represents one of the world’s most effective forums for this kind of transnational dialogue. Tebbit’s appeal to history also neglects the fact that a stronger and more fully integrated EU can act as a counterweight in a multi-polar world, just as Britain did with regards to imperialistic European powers.

Instead what he proposes is that the UK remove itself from the European legislative bodies and their policy obligations, but that it retain the benefits generated by that legislature, such as the free circulation of goods, capital and labor. The fact that the UK already opts-out of any policies it doesn't like makes the argument illogical. Britain would submit to policies implemented by Brussels without having any influence over how they might be shaped or changed in the future. This would represent a significant loss of national sovereignty. He doesn’t realize that the EU actually increases a state’s sovereignty by allowing national issues to be voiced on a wider and more influential stage. In the future, Britain’s geopolitical influence, along with other current member states, will shrink as emerging economies rise. This negative correlation will necessitate a new approach by European nation-states whereby the viable unit for dialogue in international relations becomes supra-national bodies such as the EU. But when you base an argument on deep-rooted mistrust rather than rational debate as Tebbit does, it is expedient to ignore such discrepancies.

As further evidence of the EU’s malaise, Tebbit highlights the lack of European coordination in tackling the financial crisis, especially within the eurozone. He writes:

More recently, the global financial crisis has emphasized that the EU cannot continue as it is. The retreat of countries within the eurozone into unilateral protectionism to save their own banks has illuminated the fatal weakness of the euro. It is a currency with 15 finance ministers - and no currency can survive in the long term without not only a single central bank, but a single Treasury, a single finance minister and a single tax system.

Not exactly the opinion of respected Financial Times correspondent, Wolfgang Münchau:

While I am still hesitant to make predictions about the long-term economic and geopolitical effects of the financial crisis, it looks like it will accelerate the enlargement of both the EU and the eurozone. [...] One of the lessons from Iceland’s and Hungary’s fiasco is that non-eurozone Europe may not be economically viable during times of crisis.

Indeed, Denmark is also rethinking its historic opposition to the euro in wake of the global meltdown, and could hold a referendum as early as 2011 with the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen claiming that the current market turmoil makes it imperative that Denmark join. This would leave Britain and Sweden as the only ‘old’ EU member states outside the eurozone.

The fact remains that Britain is a nation deeply skeptical of the EU. Instead of acting as "a brake on the progress of others," however, Britain's skepticism shifts the impetus of debate towards those individuals who want Europe to move at a swifter pace, and by doing so requires that they come up with more well thought out, practical solutions to the inevitable problems of deeper integration. In this way, Britain can act as a check upon the sometimes impulsive ideas of the Brussels technocrats and politicians. It is better to drive change from within existing institutions than to disengage from the process altogether. Euro-skeptics like Tebbit need to realize that the EU, while not perfect, can be changed, but that it will not be changed for the better without Britain's continuing political influence.

Neil Leslie is an assistant editor at the Atlantic Council. His views are his own.