In or out? Contemplating a British exit from the European Union

The EU faces more than just a debt crisis. AAP/Patrick Seeger

You can’t join a football club and then ask to play rugby. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius summed up negative reaction to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech about the EU on “the Continent” with this pithy analogy.

More prosaically, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle stated that the German government shared a vision of a “better Europe” and argued, like Cameron, that “not everything has to be regulated in Brussels and by Brussels”. Still, he warned that “a policy of cherry picking must not be permitted”.

Not everyone was downhearted, though. Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said, “We share the view with the United Kingdom that Europe should be more flexible, more open, should strive more for confidence among its citizens.” The government of the Netherlands was also enthusiastic, with many of its backbenchers barely able to conceal their delight about Cameron’s critique and vision.

Cameron’s speech is both symptomatic of – and contributes to – the crises of the EU. The term “crises” is deliberately plural since it is not only the single currency that that poses a threat to the union, but a more general crisis of political legitimacy that has been brewing for some decades and has accelerated since the rejection of the Draft Constitutional Treaty in 2005 and the drawn-out ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and 2009.

These crises do not simply relate the EU as a whole, but some of its member–states too (Britain not least among them). But the EU, with its complicated institutional and decision-making structures, leads the pack in terms of public disengagement within an increasing number of its constituent nations.

Where this latest crisis will drive the EU remains contentious. People draw different conclusions from the same evidence: talk of “reform” can mean a stronger, not a weaker Europe. Elmar Brok, a parliamentarian in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has said, “I agree with [Cameron] that in Europe we need more democracy and more competitiveness. Therefore we need stronger European rules to get that.”

That conclusion has dismayed and galvanised Eurosceptics in Britain. Cameron’s concession of a referendum on EU membership makes perfect sense in the pubs, canteens and living rooms of England where grumbling about the EU has become something of a national pastime since accession in 1973. These opinions often have little to do with the reality of European governance, but have been successfully formed into an ideology that it is now impossible to ignore politically.

An opinion poll published in The Times found that if an in-out referendum were held immediately, 40% of the British electorate would vote to leave, 37% would vote to stay, with 23% undecided. Of those wanting to leave, 60% could be open to staying in under renegotiated terms. Writing in a front-page editorial for Italian paper Corriere della Sera, Franco Venturini, described the prospect of a referendum with such attitudes behind it a “credible threat of divorce”.

Eurosceptic attitudes in the United Kingdom are no surprise. What is interesting is that the grumbling that the British electorate likes to indulge in when the issue of Europe is isolated from other concerns is starting to soften as the prospect of a vote draws nearer.

Also important is the shift of opinion in Germany, where European policy is now viewed more critically than in years past. Writing in German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Martin Winter warned that as much as Cameron’s speech irritated pro-Europeans, it would be a mistake to dismiss the claims and criticisms that it contained. He said:

The formula that states that more Europe is always good for Europeans no longer hits home since the [euro] crisis … Europe cannot avoid this difficult debate … by treating Great Britain like a pariah.

Cameron’s critique rested on a narrower, trade-based view of European integration than has historically existed on “the Continent”. That view has been the dominant framework for understanding how the EU has been received in the Conservative Party since the 1970s.

Britain joined the European Communities without Britons ever really buying into the foundational ideology of European integration with its vague and undefined (and unknowable) end-point. This “British” view of Europe is now spilling over into other parts of the union where it finds some receptive ears, especially in the former Eastern-bloc countries where former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was viewed as an anti-Soviet heroine rather than an anti-European scourge.

Clearly David Cameron has to be mindful of both opinion in Britain and opinion in Europe: the familiar “two-level game” involved in European politics. The “domestic” and the “European” dimensions of politics are impossible to disentangle – unless by complete withdrawal (and probably not even then).

That apocryphal British newspaper headline that supposedly read “Fog in Channel: Continent Cut Off” used to be viewed with some amusement in Europe. Nowadays, the joke seems to be wearing thin.