Wednesday 3 June 2009

European Union: What to do with Britain?

In the short term there are two problems of strategic importance with regard to the European Union itself. In the case of Britain, they are intertwined.


After tying the knot with ultra-conservative homophobes and other Europhobes, David Cameron and William Hague have continued their quest to cut a United Kingdom under a Conservative government even further adrift from Europe.

The latest demonstration is their


TO Make provision for a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon signed at Lisbon on 13 December 2007 for the suspension of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 until the result of that referendum; and for its repeal if the Treaty is not approved in the referendum.


The reader is reminded of the fact that the United Kingdom has already completed formal ratification of the EU Treaty of Lisbon, after approval by both Houses of Parliament.

The Lisbon Treaty has been approved by the parliaments in 26 out of 27 member states. Ireland has announced a referendum on the “better deal”.


Britain’s options

If the next general election brings in a Conservative government, the suspension and rejection of approval would either

a) frustrate the treaty reform process of the EU member states since 2000, leaving the European Union with the unsatisfactory Treaty of Nice (minus further UK repatriation of common policies), in case the Lisbon Treaty has not entered into force; or

b) lay the foundations for substantial renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe, if the Lisbon Treaty is already in force.

The problem with the Conservatives’ attitude is that they seemingly want to eat the cake and have it too.

The straightforward policy would be to make a decision for or against withdrawal, with or without a referendum (in the country of “parliamentary sovereignty”).

If the United Kingdom wants to secede from the European Union, nobody will stop them. It would require detailed negotiations to deconstruct the manifold relationships, and to erect new structures, but it’s up to the British to start the negotiations.

However, it looks as if the Tories want even less responsibilities and show no team spirit, but wish to stay on the inside, in order to block progress between the EU member states.

Under the Nice Treaty their goals would be more limited, but if the Lisbon Treaty is in force, it is the foundation of the European Union, which means that a rejection would be tantamount to secession.

Cameron has announced that the following (long term) budget negotiations will give the United Kingdom needed leverage to ram through its demands. Veto power is generally the weapon of the rejectionists and obstructionists.

The political, media and popular discourse on Europe is such that secession would be a natural solution for Britain. The European Union would count its losses and go on with life, and the UK would search for its own role in world affairs and commercial relations.


What to do with Britain?

The insular British discussion tends to forget that their moods and actions have consequences for others.

The ability to take an outside view seems to be an even more scarce commodity in contemporary Britain than a tolerably accurate picture of what the EU is and isn’t.

The twofold strategy of the Conservatives will make Britain one of the main strategic short term headaches for the European Union (the other one is the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty).

In about a year’s time, the new Conservative government is going to demand a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe, smaller changes under the Nice Treaty or larger under the Lisbon Treaty.

(The Lisbon Treaty would either have crashed, or the UK would repudiate major parts of it.)

It is easy to imagine the annoyance felt by European leaders in both cases.

Their timid and consensual treaty reforms would come to nought, or at least provide the UK with even greater exceptions from common rules, while being able to halt progress almost at will.

Cameron has already promised to hold the next long term budget hostage to his demands (naturally shrinking the relative size of the EU budget and keeping the UK rebate at the same time).

With regard to the Lisbon Treaty, the political leaders can mainly watch things unfold in the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland and Poland, so they are more or less reduced to passive bystanders.

But renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s membership terms requires treaty amendments. Here the national leaders have a real choice. This is actually one of the few instances, when veto powers favour a constructive policy.


Britain may feel that it has a problem with Europe, but Britain can cause a disproportionate amount of harm to Europe as a whole.

It is already clear, where a road paved with concessions would lead the EU’s member states and the European Union. Paralysis, palsy, impotence, immobility and erosion of team spirit offer a hint.

When approached, the member states should politely tell David Cameron and William Hague where to find the door. If the other EU leaders are quick about it, they might be able to agree on the next long term budget in a less poisoned atmosphere than promised by Cameron.

Ralf Grahn


  1. But if you rush to complete a 7-year budget and then tell one of the main budget contributors to leave before that spending period even begins, then who will fill the massive hole in that budget?

    The self-interest of the Brussels institutions is in their own survival. The self-interest of the majority of member states that benefit from British contributions to the budget is on the UK remaining a member. And the self-interest of other major contributors such as Germany is in not having to make up the budget shortfall that would result from your 'my way or the highway' dictat.

  2. Freeborn John,

    As I said, the EU would have to count its losses and get on with life.

    The UK is a big issue, relatively speaking. It is the third in population size, although only fourth as a gross contributor to the EU budget.

    As a net contributor per capita it ranks after Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Belgium, but more than Austria, France, Italy, Finland and Cyprus.

    The long term budget (possibly 5 years, from 2014) is a highly intergovernmental affair, so the member states' interests are more central to the process than the 'Brussels institutions'.

    If Britain exits the EU, it would hardly happen overnight, because the relations are complex, including representation and budgetary issues.

    It is possible that the UK would want access to the internal market. The countries of the European Economic Area contribute to the EU budget for this privilege.

    Generally, I am not much in favour of 'my way or the highway' politics, but the history of UK membership has been less than constructive and the Conservative pledges promise even more difficulties in the future.

    How long would you as Manchester United coach look at one player who consistently plays for the opposing team?

    Yes, the European Union can work only through shared values, goals and team play.

  3. What can you do with Britain? Are there many real options? Surely there's nothing in the Lisbon Treaty to cover "the problem"?

    I'm not sure that the UK's budget contributions are the key issue in the EU (and it looks like other countries are likely to be asking for a better deal as well). I see Geert Wilders seems to have won 15% in the Netherlands. The Turkey issue is a big one. Eastern Europe has some very serious economic difficulties. Then there are the issues of food and energy security. Quite a large in-tray for the new MEPs.

  4. Anonymous,

    Britain needs 13 other member states to call an intergovernmental conference and 27 to conclude a deal.

    How much sympathy and understanding do you think that the Conservatives are amassing around Europe, given the choices they have made or announced?

    The Lisbon Treaty is key to at least major enlargement, so there is one complication for British policy, even without the rise of populists with a visceral hatred towards Turkey.

  5. Thanks. This is a good summary of the faulty logic behind David Cameron's policy. I think your conclusion that it is, in reality, and IN or OUT decision is correct. Let the real discussion start.

  6. Alfred the Ordinary,

    Well, when you join a venture - be it a football club, a business or something else - the natural feeling is that you want it to develop; if not, then you part.

    The Lisbon Treaty is over-rated among proponents and opponents. In my view, it is means incremental change, much of it between the EU institutions (like the European Parliament getting more of a say).

    If enough British people feel that they do not want to be part of the evolving European Union, they are the ones to make the decision, but why cause the other countries unnecessary harm?

  7. If you join a venture - be it a football club, it is normally on the understanding that you know what you are joining. We were told that we were joining a trading union which would not affect our sovereignty. We find ourselves all but taken over by a political supra-national government, with a substantially different rule of law (Civil law) from our centuries old Common Law, that protected the individual.

    We have been severely harmed already by the changes. I have been involved in fishing, farming and small business and have seen the way the EU regulations have decimated the industries and destroyed so many families and individuals all for the sake of ever greater integration.

    We might harm others by leaving, but we can help by being what we have always been, ready and willing to join with European nations through Intergovernmental agreements - agreements between sovereign nations to aid trade, defence and more.

    An independent Britain has been a great help to Europe and the past, and can be again. A Britain subjugated and brought to its knees by the EU is no help to anyone least of all its citizens.

  8. Alfred the Ordinary,

    Britain joined an evolving project for 'ever closer union', as did every other member state, before and after.

    But in some cases a divorce can be a better solution than hanging together, especially if one partner is intent on making the other one's life hell.

    If so, it is usually better if the split is amicable instead of acrimonious and messy.

  9. Grahn there is a huge difference. If one enters a marriage but was told it was just some loose friendship pact, and was definitely NOT a marriage, then one has been grossly deceived. The mistake, of course, was signing the legal documents, but for most of us, that was done by our representatives, who misrepresented the situation to us. In this case, the deceived partner has a choice. Accept the situation of ever closer union, or get a divorce.

    The Great Lie

    Prime Minister Heath "There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe, we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty... These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified...". "

    The aggrieved party might want an "amicable instead of acrimonious and messy" split, but, sadly, I feel it is bound to be the latter.

  10. Alfred the Ordinary,

    Renowned scholars have described European integration (the EEC) as a project to save the nation state, by pooling sovereignty.

    On the other hand, beginning with the Schuman declaration (1950), the European Coal and Steel Community was presented as the first step in the federation of Europe.

    'Ever closer union' has been and is the official aim, for all to see.

    But if the people of the United Kingdom do not want to participate in a constructive manner, it is probably better for all if the UK withdraws.

    In or out is the main question; the Treaty of Lisbon is secondary, but seen as an important step by the parliaments and governments of the (other) EU member states.

  11. Saving the nation state? That's a new one on me, one with which I cannot agree. I do not believe that there can be any such thing as pooling sovereignty either. I believe that we have tried to be constructive but that approach has never worked so it is time to leave. Judging by the votes, the British electorate is beginning to wake up to that fact.


Due deluge of spam comments no more comments are accepted.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.