To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

, by Nelly Tsekova

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To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

Amidst the debt crisis in Europe, Eurosceptics are dominating the public discourse in Britain and with crucial meetings of the EU heads of state scheduled before Christmas, British Prime Minister David Cameron is now publicly hinting at a referendum on EU membership.

Britain and EU - 39 years of splendid isolation

Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with the EU. No sooner had it joined the European Economic Community in 1973, it held a referendum on its continued membership in 1975. Britain was more of an observer, watching the continent from a distance with one eye across the Atlantic. Britain always paid more into the EU than it received. The country never joined the border-free travel regime Schengen, nor did it adopt the Charter on Fundamental Human Rights. It was sceptical of the common currency from the very beginning. Recently, the Government announced Britain would withdraw from 130 directives, covering everything from the European Arrest Warrant, the European Public Prosecutor to the European justice department. So for the “right formula” for Britain has been to keep some options open, but Mr Cameron has called for a “reset” of the relationship.

More “in” than “out”

Through the years, Britain’s role in European integration has been valued for the quality of its contribution in foreign, security and defence policy, for its pragmatic liberalism, upholding the freedoms of the single market, its anti-protectionist spirit. The UK is “driving the agenda” for single market issues, asking for a date to be set for completing the energy market and the services market. The UK has helped post-conflict reconstruction and played its part in ensuring the reunification of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the foreign policy front, the UK’s demonstrated commitment in helping solve conflicts in hot-spots around the world.

A key player, maintaining the complex balance of power inside the EU, Britain carries weight with some other member states that rely on its influence to bolster the bloc’s free-market wing and counterbalance France’s more statist approach. Without Britain’s active participation as a power with global reach, the EU will find it hard to fulfill its ambition to become a major player on the world stage, capable of defending its views and interests alongside other global actors.

Losing Britain’s power resources—a strong military, a veto on the UN Security Council, experience in international politics, and diplomatic know-how - would be a blow to Europe’s global ambitions.

The ties that bind

The eurozone crisis has allowed the Tories to argue that the UK should leave the EU because it is costs and its rules are holding back local businesses. More than a quarter of Conservative MPs voted against the party line last October in a nonbinding vote calling for a national referendum. Mr Cameron has said he sympathises with many of the concerns about Europe, but has argued that “it’s not in the UK’s interest to leave”.

Eurosceptics believe that finally free from the shackles of the EU, Britain could push ahead and negotiate the right trade deals with favoured trading partners such as the Commonwealth and the USA. Rather than being ’isolated’, they argue, the country would be better linked with the world’s growing economies. However, the UK does more trade with Ireland than with all the leading developing countries – Brazil, India, China and Russia – combined. It would be economically unadvisable to give up on major trading partners in order to concentrate on markets where Britain’s position is far weaker. Still, a free trade agreement such those that Switzerland and Norway have with the EU could be signed but then Brits would no longer have their say at the table.

Eurosceptics claim that outside the EU, Britain can be its own master and defend national interests better. But aren’t national interests best served by participating in open discussions on issues of national and international importance alongside other countries? Britain would be walking away from the ability to influence EU decisions and placing itself outside the largest centre of power in Europe.

Strong European foreign policy is an essential element in a strong British global role. Even the country’s leading Eurosceptic think tank, Open Europe, argues in a report that a “Brexit” would have “unpredictable political and economic risks” stating that membership remains “the most beneficial arrangement” for Britain.

Europe’s not a competition

Approaching EU politics as a struggle for power and dominance is a dead end. No cooperation can be truly successful if some of the partners put their interests first rather than focusing on negotiating and finding agreement. The relationship is, obviously, benefitting for both parties - Europe can play an important role in guaranteeing the UK’s future prosperity and security through trade, energy security and extending its reach through its external policy.

On the other hand, having Britain as a member will surely reinforce the EU’s position as a major player not only on the continent, but worldwide. It’s a matter of finding the right balance, so let’s press “restart” and see where that leads. One thing is for sure, Britain’s ties with the EU are yet to become a huge theme for discussion ahead of its next general election in 2015.

Your comments
  • On 16 November 2012 at 21:18, by I want out Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

    You detail the difficult relationship the UK has with the EU and kindly recognise the benefits the UK brings to the EU in terms of commitment to fair trade, militarily, diplomatically and might I add in relation to technological research (4 of the top 30 research universities in the World are in the UK, the top EU university is placed 37 in the Shanghai Ranking).

    The point about our rates of exports to the BRIC countries is very well made but does not show the entire picture. Unlike any other EU state we export the majority of our goods and services outside the EU (57% currently as opposed to approximately 33% for Germany and France), indeed we run a surplus against the rest of the World but a deficit with the EU. None of this is to say the EU is not a very important market for the UK and indeed vice versa

    You then raise the old argument regarding ‘influence’. We currently have a grand total of 8% of the voting power in the halls of power and to pretend since the creation of the Euro we have any real influence is mildly disingenuous. I am not claiming at this point that we should have a greater percentage of the votes, simply that to claim membership somehow imparts major influence is untrue.

    The second line of argument is then that we will have to introduce laws without having any involvement in their formulation, this can be calmly discounted. Such laws as we had to implement (and there would clearly be some) would cover trade matters alone. This is exactly the same position we are already in with every other country in the world and for every country outside the EU that currently wants to trade with the bloc. The laws passed by the EU which currently impact on our criminal justice system, social legislation etc. would no longer apply. Additionally we could question membership of the ECHR (membership of which is demanded by Lisbon Treaty even if it is not technically part of the EU) which is highly contentious to put it mildly.

    You ask “aren’t national interests best served by participating in open discussions on issues of national and international importance alongside other countries?” The answer is obviously yes, but this can be done perfectly reasonably by inter-governmental means rather than by the supra national EU. In fact that is how the overwhelming majority of the rest of the world operates.

    I would suggest to you that it is naïve in the extreme to suggest that (with the possible exception of Germany which seems to be paying all the bills) any country in the EU does not put its interests ahead of its partners. I would point to the CAP, CFP, regional funding etc. all of which see beneficiaries shouting against any chance of reduction in their ‘take’. Why then should the UK or indeed any other contributory country act differently?

    You close by saying that the relationship of the UK with the EU benefits both sides. From where I am sitting I see the UK spending approximately twice the level of GDP on defence of any other EU country except France and being left (with again with the periodic honourable exception of France) to do the dirty work (Libya, Afghanistan and now possibly Syria). We run a trade deficit with the EU of £40+bn pa and pay £6bn+ rising to £9bn for the privilege; all this so we can have 8% influence in a self-absorbed body. So where exactly are the advantages for the UK ?

  • On 20 November 2012 at 01:40, by a eurofederalist Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

    @I want out

    Dear “I want out”,

    Thank you for such a polite and constructive comment. This is a very nice reminder of most of the arguments in favor of a withdrawal, and it is very polite and well written. I’m not being sarcastic at all.

    This is a point on which we do agree : as a eurofederalist, I can’t wait for a referendum on membership to be held in the UK, so that a national-wide debate could finally happen in your country, and a decision be reached.

    You have to understand, it is very annoying to see Nigel and others being members of the European Parliament while they hate it, mock it, and get paid for it all the time ; to read the eurosceptic tabloids spitting on the EU for whatever reason ; to have the British governments trying to have their cake and eat it with the EU... Such schadenfreude, such loathing, such mockery, We just can’t take it anymore, and we would be very happy that all this would end, be it by the withdrawal of the UK. Scepticism, doubt and opposition are a democratic necessity, but in this way, they are not constructive, just pure loathing.

    I have one question, though : why Cameron, why all of the British prime ministers, have never withdrawn the UK from the EU ? Why do they go against the British people ? I read the polls in the UK are 50 % in favor of a withdrawal, 30 % something against it, and the rest doesn’t care. Why none of your leaders ever tried to satisfy the majority of the people ? I mean, any of the tory or labour candidate just has to say that they will withdraw the UK from the EU, and they win the next elections. Why don’t they just do that then ?

    My personal and humble interpretation is that they know, in spite of all the arguments you mentioned, in spite of all they might say against the EU during their political campaigns, how good is the EU membership for the UK. That the UK’s influence is way more than those official 8% ; that through your allies, positions, and simply presence, you can influence it way beyond those 8%, and that leaving it to Germany, France and others would be way more threatening to your interests than participating.

    But that’s just my humble opinion. I’m honestly curious about how you justify this fact.

    Anyway, please please please, I’m begging you to have, as a people, this debate and eventually referendum, so that you would finally reach a clear stand. Keep fighting please, even your political opponents in the EU support this fight.

  • On 21 November 2012 at 09:58, by Chloé Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

    Can someone just explain me how those 8% have been calculated ? I’m wondering how one can calculate a rate of power in a decision process, and give an exact number, but I would like to know !


  • On 21 November 2012 at 17:57, by I want out Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

    Dear Eurofederalist

    You ask why no prime minister has moved to take the UK out of the EU. I would suggest that Cameron has gone on record as saying the relationship between the UK and the EU must change (as did Milliband 19/11/12) and while he is in favour of UK membership he is being forced into a position where eventually a referendum is likely. But why has no leader asked us the question yet? I can only offer my opinion rather than evidence / statistical backed fact but given that we are discussing politicians that is probably as valid as any other source.

    Individually senior UK politicians often do well out of the EU, there are opportunities for those who fail nationally to progress to the EU and sign on to the payroll. A brief examination of leading pro EU politicians discloses a goodly list. Others believe that they have a pathway to greater supra national prominence through the EU. Yet others have simply failed to understand the overwhelmingly political nature of the EU and believed it was overwhelmingly an economic entity, as a result they have been repeatedly out manoeuvred by their peers in the EU. (I recommend ‘The Great Deception’ Christopher Booker and Richard North regarding the period of Thatcher and Major).

    At a lower level many ‘toe the party line’ for internal advancement and would be perfectly prepared to swop their view if they believed it would result in promotion etc. The Conservative Party is a classic example of this; it has taken the influx of nearly 150 new MPs at the last general election to decisively swing the party to a view that more closely mirrors that of the general public.

    I understand your view is that they have a deeper understanding of the EU than I or those that want to leave. I could even accept it if I had not heard numerous politicians, and not just from the UK, say they had agreed to this or that treaty, policy, directive etc. without fully understanding or indeed even reading it. My faith is further undermined when I listen to the inaccuracies which politicians produced when challenged, despite the fact that the information that is readily available through UK and EU statistical sources. My own MP has consistently produced ‘facts’ which are just wrong when compared with figures produced by the Office of National Statistics (our equivalent of Eurostat).

    Undoubtedly some genuinely believe that EU membership is a good thing for the UK, but that does not impact on the economic figures I have already detailed. Nor does it detract from the fact that increasingly the EU has greater control over national populations. Ultimately the fact is that for the UK membership of a political EU has never been popular. You can suggest this is due to the media but I would remind you that a eurosceptic British media is in fact a relatively new factor and the BBC itself has announced a review to be held in 2013 to address the fact that they have consistently failed to report negative views about the EU.

    We all (both in the UK and the rest of the EU as well as you and I personally) want the UK to finally make a decision regarding membership. Individually I want voters to recognise what that means. I do not believe the current situation is sustainable, either the UK must leave the EU and become a trading partner or we join the EU in actively moving quickly towards closer integration. That would mean membership of the Euro, Schengen, removal of all national vetoes, common tax and fiscal policies, single foreign policy, standard criminal justice etc. I am just not convinced that when it is put in those terms many in the UK would vote for it, yet that is the decision that the UK (and every one of the other 26 countries) must take.

    I understand and can sympathise with the complete frustration you must be feeling over the UK’s current position. Please believe me when I say there are lots of people over here who are just as angry over the situation. All I can say is we’ll continue to push for a referendum from this side you do the same from yours !

    Chloe – the 8% comes from the weight of countries in a protocol of the Treaty of Nice which laid down the respective qualified majority voting power of each country. So out of a total of 355 votes the UK has 29 (as does Germany, France and Italy) while Sweden for example has 10.

  • On 24 November 2012 at 18:52, by Chris Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

    Thank You for this very interesting and stimulating article and thank You as well for the nice discussion. Although You mention several things which I consider to be very accurate, I kind of disagree with You in some respects.

    You have mentioned, that Britain played its role in the reunification process after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That may be true, but what You don’t mention is, that Thatcher tried to stop the German unification just months before the Berlin Wall collapsed. In my point of view, Britain was forced to play a role in the unification, but that role was far from being meritorious.

    You correctly mention, that Britain pushed the Single Market. In my opinion the Single Market comes along with a whole series of problems like an increase of tax evasion, increased pressure on domestic welfare systems and paradoxically rising nationalism. The EU is lacking complementary policies to the single market, like a coordinated tax system or an effective adjustment mechanism. Britain was one of the countries always opposing necessary supranational solutions.

    Regarding Britain’s military efforts there is to say, that all military actions since the collapse of the Bi-Polar world order are highly arguable. The Iraq-War was obviously illegitimate, the operation in Libya far exceeded the R2P, the Afghan-War was at least a disaster due to dilettantism and the Yugoslavian, Croatian, etc. Wars could have been prevented, if the US and the European countries had rather stabilised than further destabilised the region. Sorry, but that is my point of view.

  • On 28 December 2012 at 14:12, by a eurofederalist Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe

    Dear “I want out”,

    I hope you might fall again on this page and see this comment, even after a month. I just came across some very interesting articles, and I’d like your opinion about them. The first one is just a report made by a non-europhile British politician about the deep inaccuracies - not to say the lies - of the English press, in general, in regards to the EU.

    Leveson – “clear evidence of misreporting on European issues”

    Do you really believe that “a eurosceptic British media is in fact a relatively new factor” ?!?! We’ve been talking about this problem for decades on the continent. The power of a EU bashing biased English press has slowly helped increasing the euroscepticism of the English people ever since the beginning.

    What’s more, what do you say about the figures and arguments of the Economist on the Brexit issue ? I’ve never seen such a strong case for the EU made by such a serious and sceptical paper. I admit, it is rather sad to “hide” behind articles made by others, while you handle all the arguments for your position quite well, but my cause is not to keep the UK within the EU, it’s increasing the integration of the EU. Therefore, my case is not as versed as yours on this issue.

    Goodbye Europe

    Making the break

    Have a nice day.

  • On 3 January 2013 at 16:07, by I want out Replying to: To leave or not to leave – the Shakespearian dilemma for Britain in Europe


    Hello, with regards to the points you raise, I would respond as follows.

    Leveson as you are probably aware has been tasked to review the British media and to consider what controls if any should be put in place. The meatiest section of the Leveson Report you highlight is perhaps 9.53, a lengthy quote from Alistair Campbell (the chief spin doctor for the Blair Government and himself a previous political editor of two national newspapers) detailing ludicrous stories about the EU. Lord Leveson himself declares that Mr Campbell’s ‘evidence may have been exaggerated for effect’. But he does go on to say that reporting should be factually accurate even if it does have an element of editorial comment, no one would disagree with that or the point that Lord Leveson goes on to make that ‘there can be no objection to agenda journalism.’ I would suggest that is precisely where the more thoughtful UK journalists are.

    With regards to your disbelief (understandable) that the British media were ever europhiles, might I point to the eleventh paragraph of your final link, “When Britain last voted on Europe, in 1975, every national newspaper except the Morning Star campaigned for an “In” vote.”

    I am sure we would both agree that newspapers and journals are one aspect of the media, but they are generally seen as running behind the TV / radio / internet as informing the public. May I draw your attention then to the fact that two independent reports (one by the MORI polling organisation) into alleged pro EU bias within the BBC discovered what they termed ‘cultural and unintentional bias’. The attached link (apologies about the length) may be of interest to you. This is the BBC that is arguably the biggest player in terms of broadcast / internet media in the UK and therefore very influential.

    Regardless of media bias (pro or anti, deliberate or accidental) there is always the deeper question of whether the media shape the view of the reader / viewer or whether the media itself caters to the views of their readership, that is, do they take a stance which they know is popular with their target market and promulgate it to sell papers, advertising etc. This has been subject to considerable debate within academic and journalistic circles. A classic example is Nigel Farrage v the EU, not in relation to the accuracy or otherwise of what he says, simply the volume of hits both sides of the debate get when they are equally able to put their material in front of the public (that is, what do the public chose to read), the link below is thought provoking in this context.

    Finally the comments from The Economist. For it to describe itself as eurosceptic is a little amusing, it has always openly believed that the UK should be a member of the EU and has constantly written in that vein and promoted the cause.

    Figures can be quoted for either side of the economic debate, but here are a few suggesting exit (or a looser partnership as suggested by Jacques Delors 28/12/12) might be beneficial for the UK,

    Cost of EU over regulation to UK – 6% GDP (Treasury Study, author Gordon Brown), Cost of loss of UK opt out from working time directive - £20bn (UK Government Dept of Business), Cost of changes to Pregnant Worker’s Directive to UK - £2.8bn (EP FEMM committee impact assessment) etc.

    The economic arguments regarding membership of the EU are obviously important and complex, please do not believe that by using the above examples I do anything other than indicate costs caused by the EU. Ultimately I would point to the second paragraph of my first posting on this topic and wish to stress the last sentence. Also let us not forget that trade figures are fluid as industries / markets develop or decline, look at the way the UK trade figures changed on joining the EU.

    The real reason that a Brexit (horrible word) is becoming more of an issue is not that the UK dislikes the EU any more than it has for a considerable period, it is because the EU is fundamentally changing in order to protect the Euro. You say it yourself, you want to see increasing integration in the EU, the overwhelming majority in the UK do not. Given that, the economic arguments are in fact secondary to the political ones.

    The real question put to the voters in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere if you want to hear the answer) is do you want to be part of an organisation with a single currency, centrally determined budget, common legal system, single army, etc. ultimately a single country, federal or otherwise ? If the answer is no then actually the UK stance makes absolute sense.

    Sorry for the length of this posting but you did ask.


    I want out

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