By Johannes Tropper, EST Ambassador to Austria.
Prime Minister of the UK and head of the Conservative Party David Cameron promised the British electorate to hold a referendum on British membership in the EU. Months of negotiations concluded with a special deal offering the UK concessions in order to prevent the seemingly worst-case scenario of the UK leaving the EU. Some in the British political establishment are concerned about the (un) intended consequences a separation from the EU would have for the British Isles, while others anticipate great opportunities. The debate among the political establishment on the continent, however, circles around the issue that the European Union will be weaker without the UK and ‘Brexit’ would kick-start disintegrative forces endangering the existence of the European Union. There is no outspoken alternative camp that provides a more optimistic narrative about a potential ‘Brexit’. Instead of only emphasizing the risks, we should also point out that great opportunities may lie ahead of us if the UK decided to abandon its membership. Despite the fact that the member states under the guidance of EU Council president Tusk have been negotiating with David Cameron to grant the country certain concessions, we should not primarily ask the question ‘how can we prevent the UK from renouncing the Union?’, but ought to raise the questions ‘is it sensible to maintain the UK in the EU at all costs?’ and ‘what advantages does the EU have if the UK leaves?’.
The justified concerns of some British politicians including the Prime Minister are addressed by briefly outlining a few disadvantages a ‘Brexit’ would entail for the UK. Secondly, in the light of the new British special status the article explains why ‘Brexit’ can have significant advantages for the EU. Lastly, the article will draw the conclusion that ‘Brexit’ can lead to a better-integrated EU or at least a better integrated ‘core-group’ of states and thusly should be construed as a unique opportunity.
The UK has never been the most Europhile of states and highly critical of a further ‘deepening’ of EU integration. Pooling powers in the EU institutions has long been regarded as a mistake that would lead to economic disintegration, a loss of competitiveness and end to national democracy. Ultimately, the possibility of prohibiting or limiting EU migrants’ access to social benefits has managed to occupy the public debate about future UK membership. Sovereignty over British affairs; cooperation only where it promotes prosperity and stability for the UK.
Given the fact that the UK is the third largest populated country in the EU and the British economy the second largest, it is a key player. In foreign policy and security matters, the UK is the only major power apart from France capable and willing of projecting substantial military force abroad. It is also a Permanent Member of the Security Council. Hence its absence would substantially affect the EU, but would most certainly hurt the UK much more- both in trade and political terms.
In terms of trade roughly 45% of UK exports of goods and services were destined for the EU in 2014, while approximately 53% of imports had its origin in the EU. Traditionally, the UK has run a trade in goods deficit with the EU. On the international stage the UK will almost inevitably play a diminished role, in particular with regards to free trade deals, as its share in the common EU leverage for trade negotiations will be gone. Access to the EU’s single market without membership in the Union will lead to intricate negotiations, which will not permit the UK to cherry-pick privileges without accepting obligations. Furthermore, any form of access to the single market comes at a monetary price and involves a lack of decision-making; in other words a situation akin to ‘taxation without representation’. Norway can tell a thing or two about that. Hence, the time of financial contributions to the EU would not be over. As far as EU legislation is concerned, the UK will not be able to avoid incorporation of laws, which regulate the single market. All in all, genuine autonomy might end up being much smaller than commonly anticipated unless the UK was to withdraw into complete isolationism.
For the EU itself, ‘Brexit’ might also serve as a dangerous precedent to other EU countries.
A domino effect could be triggered where wealthier economies consider abandoning their EU membership to avoid the increased financial burden in the absence of British financial contributions. More generally, the remaining member states will be tempted to fiercely push through national demands under the threat of leaving the Union. Special deals for other countries might become an integral part of the daily agenda.
Nevertheless, the same argument can be used against British membership. Why should the political leaders of other EU countries not resort to claims of representing a unique nation in Europe, one that is ‘independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty’ as Cameron put it? If the UK can have ‘the best of both worlds’, why not others as well?
In addition, the new safeguard mechanism to limit in-work benefits of newly arrived migrants poses an immediate danger to the principle of equal treatment of EU citizens. Every wealthier member state with a relatively high unemployment rate and some influx of migrant workers will be tempted to use this protectionist measure, given the fact that anti-EU parties are surging in the polls. Despite the fact that this safeguards’ measure requires authorization by the Council, already the attempt to limit the benefits for employed EU citizens might allow governments to present themselves as champions of the working population. On the EU level, it might lead to serious political disputes along an East-West divide. Because of the requirement of Council authorization, any promise by a national government to limit access to benefits will lead to further popular disenchantment and frustration with the EU if the Council does not authorize the measure. The potential for agitation against EU institutions and EU migrants renders this safeguard measure genuinely disintegrative. The special deal as a whole is pervaded by disintegrative forces as EU citizens outside the UK will presume that only the UK was awarded privileges, while the others are fools obeying the EU diktat. That is essentially what anti-EU parties need to wait for. Gradually dismantling core EU pillars in times of growing distrust in the EU, a UK membership with a special deal could be more detrimental to the preservation of the Union than ‘Brexit’.
Even without this special deal, UK membership does not necessarily have to make an advocate of the EU project feel jubilant. The UK adds a plethora of important ingredients to the EU-‘cuisine’. Yet other British ingredients cause rotten meals and unhappy customers, i.e. certain EU states and EU citizens. The past is prologue. Since the beginning the UK favoured a vision of states loosely tied together. The more countries, the better: widening, not deepening has been the mantra. The concept of a free trade zone appealed to the British government. However, the aspiration of establishing a political and economic union that could be transformed into a federal entity seemed almost repugnant. Whenever changes to the designs of the political and economic architecture are on the table, the UK is among the first to spell doom on more courageous steps towards deepening the Union. In the view of British political power, a veto in the European Council over national interests can be exercised more easily by the UK than many other countries.
For the UK, Schengen was a no-no, the Euro too. The UK also achieved an opt-out from the justice and home affairs, called the ‘Area of Freedom, Security and Justice’. Another opt-out was granted to them with respect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is clearly an indication that any attempts to achieve a more deeply integrated union or at least better integrated Eurozone− as for instance outlined in the ‘Five Presidents’ Report’, the article by the German and French economics ministers or at a recent meeting of the foreign ministers of the six founding states− will not be supported by the UK and even blocked or at least slowed down. A common economic policy with a common budget, a common finance minister and a common social policy − presumably only a long term project− are unattainable if the UK is not virtually excluded of all of these treaty changes and its impacts. The special deal could guarantee that, but it does not make treaty changes with the UK necessarily easier. Agreements advancing the ‘ever closer union’ based on a truly constitutional framework could potentially only be constructed outside the treaty framework if the UK still slows down the process. Moreover, such a legal architecture with side agreements and special deals is more complex. More importantly, it destroys any hope of creating a foundation for a transnational ‘demos’. The basic rules of an entity moving towards an ‘ever closer union’ would be enshrined in some patched-up treaties accompanied with more and more special deals. Such a constitutional framework can never constitute an object of identification for the people, who should not only regard themselves of being citizens of a specific nation-state, but also EU citizens in the long run. The very idea of a supra-national body politic that is more than an international organization will come under pressure if one or a handful of countries can start cherry-picking their core principles. British reluctance to be part of the ‘ever closer union’ is partially responsible for not fostering a more European identity, but on the contrary preserving the notion that EU is an elitist, technocratic and abstract entity dictating policies.
It might seem counterintuitive to argue for a united Europe, but at the same time approve of ‘Brexit’. The advocates of a strongly integrated Union should not instinctively shrink from letting the UK go its own way. ‘Brexit’ does not need to be interpreted as a threat to the European integration, but it can rather be the moment of a new awakening of a Union that has lost appeal among its citizens. Should the referendum be a success for proponents of ‘opting out of Europe’, a more favourable political environment leading to a better integrated community of states and people could emerge. We can appreciate such a momentum for re-inventing the European project.
British plans for reforming the EU have always focused on issues like competitiveness, but never gone far enough because the UK does not share the vision of an ‘ever closer union’− essentially a Franco-German concept. In view of that ‘Brexit’ can be a tremendous opportunity for a wider the debate, which will allow the ‘European project (…) [to be] be re-established, with a core that shares a certain number of economic elements, values and historic connection’. The more member states, the more difficult it is to ‘deepen’ the Union, but a deepening of the integration leading to convergence in certain political and economic categories is inevitable if this form of supranationality is to prevail. In order to envisage a stronger, coherent and less divisive European Union, a few countries ultimately will be in the vanguard devising this ‘ever closer union’. Those states should not be held back by UK membership. A two-speed Europe can be a promising future. A core group of states, for instance including the original founding members and other Eurozone countries willing to harmonize certain policies in the field of economic governance and other areas, can ultimately lead to a more powerful EU. Whatever the second speed may be, dismantling the existing structure, as the UK-deal does, goes beyond that and constitutes a three-speed Europe. Such special treatment for one country is counterproductive for political integration. Therefore, the EU is better off without a UK that has been granted a special status.
To sum it up, ‘Brexit’ should not be regarded as the beginning of the end of European integration, but rather as a splendid opportunity to reinvigorate political and economic integration. The ‘ever closer union’ cannot be advanced with the UK. The future of this EU cannot be preserved with a UK that has such a special status.
UK membership in the EU seems to offer certainty that things will stay the way they are. The negotiated deal, however, can be equally disintegrative as ‘Brexit’ itself. Other member states might claim a right to a special deal. The safeguard mechanism limiting social benefits can ultimately also have a disintegrative effect. Last but not least, a quasi-constitutional supra-national framework disfigured by special deals prevents the formation a supranational European identity. A referendum in favor of ‘Brexit’ may create uncertainty and constitutional crisis, but it is also a unique moment to truly create an ‘ever closer union’.
Cf. European Council Conclusion (EUCO) 2016/1 of 18 and 19 February on the United KingdomandtheEuropean Unionand Migration  http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/european-council/2016/02/18-19/ ;
 Cf. David Cameron’s‚Bloomberg Speech‘ in 2013: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg
David Cameron’s ‚Bloomberg Speech‘ in 2013: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg
Cf. Jonas Talberg, ‘Bargaining Power in the European Council’ (2008) 46 JCMS 685, p. 691