A country called Europe fills UK sceptics with fear
OPINION: Cameron was brutally clear when he foresaw the need to intensify EU union. Such concerns may force a UK exit
As brave europhile Brits walk in fear of Brexit and Tory Eurosceptics and their UK Independence Party cousins inhale the sweet smell of success, other Europeans watch with bemusement how Britain, after decades of obstreperous membership of the European club, may finally pick up its armoured handbag and go.
The recent history of Europe has accustomed us to reversals, but few have materialised as fast as this: the secession of the UK from the European Union, once a topic for post-prandial jousting, is now a hot potato on Europe’s political menu.
Whether Brexit should be dreaded or welcomed as the exit of a poisonous flatmate has become a matter of serious examination in European capitals. Would British withdrawal badly weaken the economic and ideological foundations of the single market, allowing excessive statism a free rein? Would a British departure deal a fatal blow to Europe’s global clout by depriving it of British diplomatic and military heft? No consensus has formed – though on balance, most EU leaders would prefer the UK to stay in.
So why the change? As with pretty much everything else in Europe these days, the answer lies with the euro zone crisis. Strikingly, the dynamics at work have found their first clear expression in an interview UK chancellor George Osborne gave the Financial Times in July 2011. In one of the most richly ironic moments of recent European history, it fell to a British chancellor to become the first big hitter of any big EU member state to speak of the need to transform the euro zone into a fiscal union. In effect, Mr Osborne was demanding a far greater curtailing of national sovereignty in the euro zone than its member states had hitherto envisaged. He did so at a time when such federalist encomiums were viewed as offensively provocative by the governments in Berlin, Paris or Madrid, all of which hoped – and continue to hope – that taming the euro zone crisis will not exact quite such a steep price in terms of national sovereignty.
Britain’s partners were seriously annoyed and the mandarins of Whitehall were left gasping for air at this reckless jettisoning of centuries of British attempts to stop the continent from coalescing into a single political entity. But this was no erratic lapse; Mr Osborne clearly expressed the view at the top of British politics.
A good year later, a moment of beautifully unguarded prime ministerial language unfolded on the Late Show with David Letterman in the US. David Cameron, having famously failed to pass Letterman’s knowledge tests on the meaning of Magna Carta and the authorship of Rule Britannia, went on to explain later in the programme that “in Europe if you have a single currency, you are going to end up with effectively some form of single government . . . I don’t want that for Britain . . . I don’t want to be part of a country called Europe.” He said this having previously made clear that the relationship between euro zone member states must surely come to resemble that between Texas and Nebraska for the euro to survive.
Most of Europe’s media ignored the comment because it was made on the Letterman show and most of the British media predictably zeroed in on Mr Cameron’s amusing failure to remember his Old Etonian Latin. They glossed over the far more important and astoundingly frank assertion by their prime minister that the euro zone, unless it disintegrated, must effectively become the United States of the Euro and that the United Kingdom under his stewardship would not wish to be part of “a country called Europe”.