World View: EU worried about setting precedent in negotiations with Cameron
Concern that Le Pen, Wilders, and other right-wing populists will be inspired to seek similar outcomes
The principle German security fear is of a France ruled by Marine Le Pen.” Photgraph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images
Finalité describes the intended endgame of European integration according to federalist theory. Finality, in contrast, looks increasingly like the outcome of Britain’s relations with the European Union if its voters decide to leave in the forthcoming referendum – the “Brexit”. The costs for Britain and the geopolitical consequences for the EU itself are only now being properly discussed and analysed.
Finalité looks like a European supranational state. It is assumed by those who oppose that outcome to flow inexorably from the commitment to an “ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe” written into European Union treaties. Even though this commitment refers to peoples and not states, excluding Britain from it is one of the demands made by David Cameron in his negotiations with Brussels.
A compromise is likely, based on an acknowledgment that different interpretations of what is involved are possible. Most federalists say a supranational state is quite unrealistic – however much an EU without Britain, or a euro zone alongside its continuing membership, would need to share more sovereignty to survive. Since restoring lost sovereignty is the unvarying demand of British eurosceptics, they are unconvinced by such assurances.
Absolute sovereigntyBut the other side of their sovereignty coin is a growing realisation that a vote to leave would have a definite finality of its own if they insist on absolute sovereignty. Recent consultative meetings, research seminars, real and mock political negotiations make this clear.
On the day after a Brexit vote, there would be huge global political and market uncertainty about what the decision means. It would be a geopolitical shock consequential not only for Britain but for the EU itself. Existing models of external relations with the EU like those of Norway or Switzerland could not meet the sovereignty condition because they involve large contributions to the EU single market and have no influence on its rules.
An a la carte arrangement is bluntly unacceptable to the EU. Its negotiators have a strong interest in giving Britain the best possible terms to keep it within the club, but little or no interest in allowing it set precedents for further possible disintegration. At a meeting in London this week, I was struck by how firmly this position was taken by experts from other states, including those closest to Britain. A similar conclusion came from the Open Europe mock negotiations at which Ireland was represented by John Bruton.
The spectre of EU disintegration helps explain the varying perspectives. Seen from Berlin or Paris, Brexit is not usually considered a first-order issue compared to survival of the euro zone, the migration crisis or recent terrorist attacks.
But leaders and analysts are coming to see that a British departure could be a dynamic tipping point of more fundamental change. What if it inspires Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and other right-wing populists to seek similar outcomes in a contagious escalation? The principal German security fear is of a France ruled by Le Pen. How would France balance Germany without Britain? Would it want to become the US’s deputy sheriff instead of Britain as Washington might expect?
Seeping weaknessA growing view of a weaker Britain in a weakened EU pervades these discussions. Britain’s dual sovereignty crisis – externally concerning the EU and internally concerning Scotland’s role in the UK – is now fully inscribed in its official political discourse.
Such existential questions will shape David Cameron’s approach to the current negotiations with Brussels and then how he frames the much larger and deeper issue of whether Britain should remain in the EU or leave it. Security concerns loom in the latter debate. They may give him an opportunity to campaign more passionately and convincingly that Britain should not leave for fear of being made much weaker and more prone to disintegration itself.
Speaking in Dublin this week, the former Labour Party shadow spokesman on the EU in the House of Commons, Pat McFadden, said the choice between remaining or leaving went deeper than a vote on the four issues Cameron was now negotiating on. More than half British exports go to the EU, half of its foreign direct investment comes from the EU and half of its non-EU investment is geared to the EU single market (see iiea.com).
All that makes Brexit into an asymmetric encounter, unlikely to be amicable and more likely to be a deeply contentious divorce.
Those claiming the victory would be English nationalists unreconciled to the post-sovereign world we inhabit and unwilling to compromise with it.
The libertarian free traders would be much weaker in comparison, market forces in favour of a compromise notwithstanding.