How Britain pursues its relationship with the EU is full of consequence for others
Opinion: Internal UK politics is already a paralysing force in the affairs of the Union
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, whose party is campaigning for a British exit from the European Union, a policy position also supported by many Conservatives. Photograph: Reuters
The British Conservative Party’s plan to renegotiate the United Kingdom’s terms of membership of the EU, followed by an in/out referendum, could unleash a sequence of events beyond the control of its author.
In fact it might prove easier to negotiate terms for the UK’s total withdrawal from the EU, which requires only a majority in the EU Council, than to negotiate a change in the treaties to suit UK interests. Any treaty amendment requires all 28 member states to agree.
Even were it to leave the EU, it would still be important to the UK that the union was able to function decisively. Otherwise there would be no single EU market, which would be bad for British exports. An EU with 27 different markets and fluctuating currencies would not buy as many British goods and services.
The precedent set by a member state looking for preferential terms on the basis of a threat of withdrawal could corrode mutual confidence among the remaining members. One has the sense that some in the UK do not care about this, while others would actually be happy if the process tore the union apart.
Such a scenario could unfold after the 2015 general election, or after any subsequent election, unless or until the Conservative Party changes its policy.
It could also be precipitated if the EU itself has to revise its treaties. A revision would require British consent, and any British government in such a process would be under pressure to use the negotiations to advance its own agenda.
This, along with the fear of unpredictable referendum outcomes, is why many EU leaders are afraid of treaty change. But a union that cannot change its treaties to cope with new circumstances will wither. Internal UK politics is thus already a paralysing force in EU politics.
EU leaders have kept silent on the internal UK debate, even though it is one in which their own electorates have a vital interest.
This allows UK opinion to develop unrealistic expectations of what could be gained in a renegotiation, with a consequently increased risk of disappointment, or a growth in support for outright withdrawal.
The UK needs to take account of opinion in other EU states because the consent of a majority will be needed if a renegotiation is to be concluded to its satisfaction or if, having left the union, it is to enjoy continuing privileged access to the single market.
Neither of these can be taken for granted. All EU states have national agendas and axes to grind, and can fail to compromise even when they should. British attempts to renegotiate could encourage others to do likewise, unpicking old compromises and rekindling old grievances to no useful purpose.
Some of the prizes the UK might be looking for in a renegotiation would undermine the effectiveness and stability of the EU.
The so-called “red card” proposal, whereby a minority of national parliaments could veto an EU law that had already been approved by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, in both of which the UK is represented, would paralyse decision-making and could even block measures Britain wants, like liberalisation of the services market.
Some Tory MPs even argue that an unspecified group of national parliaments should be able to repeal existing EU laws, bypassing the European Parliament and the EU’s existing decision-making structures.
This would be to reopen the long-settled compromises on which the single market is based and make them continually subject to populist pressures.
Both of these proposals would require a treaty change, because the role of national parliaments in the EU process is defined in a protocol to the existing treaties, and a protocol has the same legal status as a treaty article. To change a protocol, every single member state, and the European Parliament, would have to agree.
Another likely UK demand would be that national courts, rather than the European Court of Justice, should the final adjudicator on disputes concerning the meaning of EU agreements on the fight against crime. This could mean 28 different interpretations, and many new loopholes through which well-advised criminals could evade justice.
Should Britain vote to leave the EU, a new negotiation would start under article 50 of the treaty to decide the terms on which it would have access to the union for its people, goods and services. This would have to be concluded within two years, unless there was unanimous agreement to an extension.
Article 50 of the EU Treaty requires a qualified majority in the European Council and a majority in the parliament to agree the terms to be granted to a country withdrawing from the EU. It is likely that such terms would include a continuing financial contribution to the budget in return for continuing access to the EU single market.
If no agreement were reached within two years, the UK would be out of the EU and subject to immediate restrictions and tariffs on its exports to it. Customs posts would have to be reintroduced on the Border in Ireland and at cross-channel ports.
If then the UK wanted to restrict immigration from the EU, it would have to introduce passport controls on the Irish Border, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, either of which would undermine the work done to promote peace and reconciliation.
These would, of course, be unintended consequences, but the unintended often happens in politics, and initiatives can sometimes escape from the control of their initiator.