Britain and EU: The worst is yet to come, so let’s be smart

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Britain appears increasingly disinterested in Europe, mostly because it does not want to take part in the solution to the eurozone crisis. European leaders appear less willing to factor in Britain’s interests, especially within the Council, argues Vivien Pertusot.

Vivien Pertusot is head of office in Brussels for the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).

"2012 has been an uncomfortable year for the British coalition government on EU issues. It has been trying to save face before its domestic audience, while appearing increasingly out of touch with EU’s dynamics.

2013 will be a stranger year. On the one hand, Britain will celebrate its 40th anniversary within the European Community/Union. On the other hand, it will be working hard on its “Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union” that many call the first step toward targeting policies to “repatriate”.

This review has received little attention so far outside Britain. In light of recent and upcoming disputes between the UK and its EU partners, as well as a growing demand for clarification over what the UK wants, a closer look is necessary. Its impact and the dynamic it will create can be consequential.

The review was part of the coalition agreement. The wording was ambiguous enough to raise suspicion. It mentioned in the same point that there would be “no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament”, and that there would be a review of competences. The Liberal Democrats probably managed to strip the agreement of any mention of repatriation.

It was also odd that in July, William Hague authored the foreword of the Fresh Start Project’s Green Paper – a project whose aim is to assess EU policies, and determine which ones the UK could repatriate – just a few days before officially launching the review in front of Parliament.

In fairness, he wrote the foreword as a member of Parliament and announced the review as Foreign Secretary. Yet his views on the EU are an open secret.

The review is now shaping up. A small team within the Foreign Office coordinates the contributions from various cabinets across Whitehall. A calendar has detailed the process over four semesters and every semester an interim report will be published up until autumn 2014.

The outcome is again unclear. British officials are wary to say that it will not put forward policy recommendations; it will be a mere open consultation. Obviously, British players will exploit it. The Tories and UKIP will take it to argue in favour of repatriation of powers – if not withdrawal – in the field of social and fishery policy for instance.

The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party will try to use it to bring about an informed debate on the EU. Many news organisations will seek “newsworthy” nooks and crannies out of it that will probably bolster the Eurosceptic agenda. The City and business associations are likely to fall on both sides of the argument depending on the issue.

What is certain is that continental Europe should not look away from this debate. The relationship between London and its European partners is at an all-time low on EU affairs.

Britain appears increasingly disinterested, mostly because it does not want to partake in the solution to the eurozone crisis. European leaders appear less willing to factor in Britain’s interests, especially within the Council.

Angela Merkel and Mario Monti have taken up the issue of Britain and the EU publicly; undoubtedly some more will in the coming months.

Moreover, disputes on the EU are not over – EU multi-annual budget negotiations, the banking union etc. All sides have legitimate concerns, but it is important to realise how that can play out within the British domestic debate in light of 2014 European elections, but more importantly 2015 general elections.

The review may be a fig leaf to put off a referendum that seems inevitable around 2016-2017, but each report could strengthen the opposition against the EU. Most continental Europeans will find it striking that none of the two major parties is today pro-European in the way we understand it – that is in favour of more integration, whichever kind it may be.

Consequently, it would not be surprising that indifference against Britain’s considerations on the EU will grow.

It could be a slippery slope. No EU leader believes that it is in Europe’s interest to see Britain drift away. Yet the more annoyance crystallises, the more it fuels the eurosceptic agenda and the more it becomes difficult for pro-European advocates – in Parliament, business, interest groups etc. – to make their case.

The conservative ministers of the coalition will have increasing difficulty to manage their backbenchers in parliament, while UKIP is likely to surf on its positive trends in opinion polls.

We need to acknowledge that while we are pondering over the virtue of deepened integration, the British debate delves into the value of being part of the EU in the first place.

It is adventurous enough for any pro-European actor to take a stance in favour of the European Union; let us not make their life more difficult."

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