The United Kingdom is largely responsible for the EU’s predominantly liberal ethos and present geopolitical dimensions, writes Sir Michael Leigh.
Sir Michael Leigh is Senior Advisor to the German Marshall Fund of the United States since 2011. Dr. Leigh was Director-General DG Enlargement at the European Commission from 2006 to 2011.
Britain is in the grip of a prolonged political crisis concerning its own constitutional order and its membership in the European Union, exacerbated by acrimonious and misleading arguments over immigration. As in other European countries, a demagogic anti-EU, anti-immigration movement has driven the established parties into a defensive posture. The current prime minister, David Cameron, felt compelled to promise an “in/out” referendum on Britain’s EU membership if his Conservative Party returns to power after the May 2015 general election. As a further gesture to the populists, he is now hinting at advancing the date of this referendum.
But such efforts at appeasement have proved futile, provoking ever-increasing demands. At the same time, British leaders have upset natural allies within the EU and missed an opportunity to become the leading European voice advocating forward-looking policies such as completing the single market, strengthening Europe’s global competitiveness, and building an energy union. The government has also failed to explain to voters that the EU today bears strong signs of British design and as such serves Britain’s interests well.
Over the past four decades, the EU has been transformed from a relatively small “Community” of nine member states to a “Union” with 28 members embracing much of the European continent. What was once an inward-looking, largely Francophone, club has become a broad-based Union that is Anglophone, outward-looking, and open to trade. The United Kingdom is largely responsible for the EU’s predominantly liberal ethos and present geopolitical dimensions.
From the outset, Britain backed both enlargement and extending the EU’s global outreach. British commissioners, including Leon Brittan, Chris Patten, Peter Mandelson, and Catherine Ashton, piloted the EU’s trade policies and external relations at crucial moments in their development. Britain was among the most consistent advocates of enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Today, Britain supports EU assistance for democratic transition in the Balkans, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states as well as sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.
British membership in 1973 led to closer EU links with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) paving the way for Sweden and Finland to join the Union in 1995. Britain championed new forms of association with African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries (many its former colonies), now incorporated in the EU-ACP “Cotonou agreement.” This is widely considered a model for development assistance, a key British foreign policy priority.
Margaret Thatcher joined forces with Commission president Jacques Delors in the late 1980s, in order to eliminate restrictions on the free circulation of goods, services, capital, and workers — the original goal of the common market. The Commissioner in charge at the time, Arthur Cockfield, as well as the then-Secretary-General, David Williamson, were both British. For decades, the single EU market has favored British exports of goods and services, especially financial services. Since 2010, the most senior EU official in charge of the single market and services has been British. Jonathan Hill, the Commissioner appointed in 2014 to regulate the single market, is also British. The Danish and Swedish Commissioners for competition policy and trade, who took office last November, support a liberal agenda in line with British thinking. Today, they are engaged in challenging negotiations with the United States for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Efforts by Wurosceptics to detract from the EU’s trade-friendly track record have not convinced British business leaders.
Britain has played a key role in shaping other core EU initiatives from the Regional Development Fund to the Common Fisheries Policy. Britain and the Nordic countries that entered the EU in 1973 (Denmark) and 1995 (Sweden and Finland) transformed the EU’s administrative culture. New EU officials are now trained in ethics, integrity, and sound financial management, part of the reforms named after the former British Labour Party leader, Neal Kinnock, who served as commission vice-president from 1999 to 2004. Today, transparency and accountability are the rule in the institutions. In any event, “question time” in the European Parliament, a practice imported from Britain, is there to keep Commissioners on their toes.
For decades, British officials have been sought after as chiefs of staff, advisers to Commissioners and assistants to directors-general of different nationalities because of their reputation for probity and efficiency. But uncertainty about future British membership has discouraged young Britons from applying for EU jobs. In the last few recruitment competitions, the proportion of successful candidates from Britain has fallen to 1 or 2 percent. Some 45% of UK staff are now over 55 years old and scheduled to retire in the next 10 years. Instead of looking over its shoulder at the Eurosceptics, the government should do more to channel British officials to the EU institutions before they become a wasting asset.
To be sure, not all EU policies are to the liking of British governments. But their officials have proved adept in negotiating opt-outs from the euro, the abolition of border controls, and certain labor market rules, as well as police and judicial cooperation. Indeed, Britain has been so successful in this that it now seeks to opt back into certain EU arrangements, like the European arrest warrant. Britain’s budget rebate is a precedent that other member states strive to emulate.
Buoyed by Britain’s success in Europe, the country’s politicians should have the courage to articulate a coherent vision of how they would like the EU to develop. Instead of making impossible demands on their European partners, they should mobilize Britain’s redoubtable political skills to negotiate further reforms, cut red tape, and make the EU more competitive. This is the best answer to the Eurosceptics and the best way to secure votes for continued British EU membership.