Sleepwalking towards the exit


The United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is at a historic turning point as English public opinion swings decisively against continuing EU membership and most other member states work to deepen the euro zone. This week’s negotiations on the EU budget for the next six years will expose these tensions, since the British prime minister, David Cameron, has little room to manoeuvre around his commitment to reject any increase. Distinctively new is the impatience and anger elsewhere over this, since most of his partners no longer believe he is willing or able to compromise.

Mr Cameron is caught between his domestic political environment and his belief that Britain’s best economic and political interests would see it remain a functioning member of the EU. That is where most British trade and investment are concentrated, notwithstanding the global reach of its financial industries and a growing belief among significant parts of its elite that Britain would be better off as a less regulated player in the global economy. Critics plausibly reply that this apparent option of a low-cost offshore economy would benefit only a minority at home and would severely disadvantage Britain’s partners and competitors in Europe.

These partners are hence unwilling to contemplate the compromises necessary to maintain British EU membership in any forthcoming negotiations about repatriating powers from Brussels. Mr Cameron’s belief that this would be much preferable to withdrawing from the EU is framed by the deepening political difficulties he has within his own Conservative Party. Eurosceptic sentiment penetrates its parliamentary and political bases, fanned by competition from outside its ranks. Business groups warn against sleepwalking away from the EU and fear the loss of a seat at the negotiating table that has been a central feature of Britain’s European strategy.

This is also a difficult time for Ireland’s relations with Britain within the European framework. A failure to resolve the budget question this week will put it squarely in the centre of Ireland’s six-month EU presidency from January, disrupting the wider issues involved and making whatever negotiating progress can be made on Ireland’s own economic problems more difficult.

Such a turning point in Britain’s relations with the EU is a watershed too for this State, having opted clearly to stay in a deeper euro zone. If Britain disengages from its European involvement many aspects of British-Irish relations will need much more attentive debate and review.

Ireland, like other EU states, would prefer that Britain remains an influential partner because of shared values and policies. But many here too now doubt if that is possible.

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