Is the EU finished if the British leave?

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

David Cameron [European Council]

Those who say that if the British leave, the EU is finished are right. Not because Britain is an indispensable member, but because for other members, sovereignty matters too, writes George Friedman.

George Friedman is an American political scientist, author and businessman, and the founder of Geopolitical Futures, a global analysis company.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been negotiating with European Council President Donald Tusk on an amendment to the agreement that governs British membership in the European Union. As many other European countries are experiencing, there is a rising opposition in Britain to EU membership. Cameron is in favor of membership but is also committed to holding a national referendum later this year or early next year on whether the United Kingdom should remain a part of the EU. At the same time, he has been trying to redefine the British relationship with the EU, in order to diminish the opposition.

A draft agreement was reached on 2 February and it is, like all international agreements, long and impenetrable. It is also subject to approval by all EU member states, and there are still some details – particularly on the key issue of a graduated system of benefits for European migrants – that are up for negotiation. Extracting the proposed agreement’s essence is not easy. But even if the document is impenetrable, the core objection of opponents of EU membership is not. The opponents want to maintain British sovereignty and want Britain to have the right to reject or ignore the EU regulations with which they disagree. Simply put, they want to be ruled by their own sovereign and parliament as the supreme and undisputed law of the land.

There are many other issues involved and the views expressed by opponents are frequently more complex. But in the end, the principle of sovereignty is critical not only to opponents of EU membership but to the supporters who want to remain in the union but also want to retain some degree of control over the EU’s regulations. If Cameron had been able to negotiate an agreement that substantially narrowed the EU’s power to regulate Britain, the opposition would have collapsed, or at least been mortally weakened.

This is what Cameron went home with:

Where reasoned opinions on the non-compliance of a draft EU legislative act with the principle of subsidiarity, sent within 12 weeks from the transmission of that draft, represent more than 55% of the votes allocated to the national Parliaments, the Council Presidency will include the item on the agenda of the Council for a comprehensive discussion on these opinions and on the consequences to be drawn therefrom.

This means that Britain will not be allowed to independently reject EU legislation. However, when 55 percent of the bloc’s member parliaments vote for non-compliance with a piece of legislation, the European Council will discuss the legislation, the opinions and the consequences. One fascinating phrase used in the draft agreement is “reasoned opinions,” which will be necessary for the 55% to trigger council consideration. It’s difficult to figure out if this is just a legal phrase of little importance or whether there really will be a process that will determine whether the objections were indeed reasoned.

Leaving that marvelous phrase aside, the fact is that Britain will not be permitted to opt out of legislation its parliament disapproves of. Rather, it must convince 55% of the other parliaments in the EU to also disagree, and that in turn will result in the council deciding whether or not to take further action. Simply put, the British Parliament will not have sovereign power over the law. It is not clear whether 55% of the parliaments of EU members will have the collective power to reverse a decision made by the union. At most, they will likely be able to compel the council to discuss the matter. Power to rescind rests with the council.

This issue is precisely what the critics object to. And that means that the referendum will go forward. It seems to me that Cameron has not succeeded in cutting the ground out from under the critics. To the contrary, his very failure might further fuel opposition.

Britain has never been comfortable with European integration. For centuries it has seen the Continent as a strategic threat, to be manipulated and blocked, but not to be drawn into. Britain was a maritime power and its wealth rested on that. Being drawn into the Continent and its disputes, except as a last resort, was not something it wanted to do.

When the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner to the European Union, was created, the British were instrumental in establishing an alternative to the EEC, called the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Where the EEC was early in seeking to harmonize the economies of its members, and lightly intruding on their internal affairs, the EFTA was simply a free trade zone, a treaty between sovereign powers that ceded no power at all over internal affairs. However, the attraction of a fully integrated European economy was too powerful and Britain eventually joined the EU. But it never joined the eurozone, and it was always uneasy over the growing power of the EU.

The differences between these two groups highlights the fact that there are two conceptions of international economic blocs. The EFTA concept lives on in NAFTA. It is a free trade zone but it has no mechanism or right to dictate the internal affairs of members. It is simply a treaty with no expectation of deeper integration. In contrast, the EU originated with the intent to go beyond free trade and move toward integration of its members’ economies, transnational regulation and, for some, the idea of a United States of Europe. The last goal did not happen and is now unlikely ever to take place. Transnational regulation is being resisted on an ad hoc basis – one issue at a time – by several members.

But it is the British opponents of the EU as a matter of sovereign rights that present the major threat. Some say that if the British leave, the EU is finished. They are right, but not because Britain is an indispensable member. Rather, if the British reject EU power, it will open a floodgate to other countries that opposed the transnational power of the European Parliament and particularly to the unelected bureaucracy. The EU will be finished because, for all of its virtues, the loss of sovereignty matters.

The EU was not designed to usurp national sovereignty. But a European parliament that can create legislation that national parliaments must apply in their countries, regardless of democratic will, usurps sovereignty without accepting responsibility for the consequences. So if the EU wants to forbid members from bailing out their failing banks, it has that power. But it is not responsible for coping with the consequences. That is left to the nations. It is a partial usurpation of sovereignty, with the power to rule, but not the obligation to manage the consequences. And in due course that will undermine the EU, whatever the result of the British referendum may be.

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