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”.
Confront British officials with this moment of prime ministerial candour and they will give you a pained look. It is a rare moment indeed when it is the head of government himself who publicly lays out a matter of fundamental political import in such starkly simple – or, as some critics would say, simplistic – terms as to leave no room for diplomatic subterfuge or political compromise.
But if Cameron is right and the euro zone must basically become like a country called Europe if it is to survive (with which this author happens to agree), then, barring some unforeseeable economic cataclysm, a vast majority of Britons will choose to stay outside it for decades to come.
Equally predictably, the European Union would then be reduced to some kind of glorified European free trade area encumbered with too many obsolete institutions. Whether the UK would remain in it or negotiate some other form of access to its single market would be a secondary issue.
Surely ambitions to build a European foreign and defence policy – the one other big constitutional issue to settle – would gravitate away from the EU towards the country called Europe. After all, wars cost money and a fiscal and budgetary union would soon seize control of military expenditure.
It is unclear yet whether market pressures coupled with the objective to strengthen the euro’s foundations will suffice to make the euro zone’s leaders surmount their innate conservatism and submit their countries to the joint exercise of a massively expanded euro-zone financial, fiscal and budgetary authority.
Obviously, the vast majority of the euro zone’s present leaders hope that Mr Cameron is wrong and that salvaging the euro will require merely a series of gradual moves towards deeper integration, each of which can be fragmented or fudged sufficiently to avoid the dangers of a referendum at home – or of a make-or-break confrontation with the UK over the nature of its relationship with Europe.
London’s red lines
But equally obviously, if it is the UK that sets the bar too high, if it is London that tries to extract painful concessions from its partners as the price of allowing the euro zone to salvage itself through deeper integration, then all euro-zone leaders are now determined to ignore the red lines drawn up in London and find other ways to achieve their goal.
For decades, Europeans implicitly accepted a special British right to constantly wield its veto as the unpleasant but necessary price to pay for British club membership. Today, the stakes are too high for such tolerant behaviour.
The gamble of the euro’s founders was that once the euro would be launched, no matter how steep the price of further political integration, the price of monetary disintegration would always be higher. History has embarked us on a gigantic experiment to see whether that prediction will come to pass.
What becomes of the UK in Europe or outside, it has now become a fascinating but minor part of that far broader narrative. Continental federalists such as this author, of course, will be tempted to wish the UK Godspeed and bon voyage. After all, it might even become possible to build a US of E once the flatmate with the armoured handbag has moved out.
Thomas Klau is senior policy fellow and head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations