UK and Europe: For better, not for worse

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

EU and British flags [Shutterstock]

EU and British flags. [Shutterstock]

The UK grows increasingly euro-sceptic, vetoing the Banking Union, threatening the EU’s long-term budget and promising a referendum on membership. However, a EURACTIV ranking of the “40 most influential Britons on current EU policy-making” underlines British influence on European issues. Complementing a federal eurozone, Britain may opt for a ‘focused membership’ centred on a better regulated single market, write Christophe Leclercq and Sharon Leclercq-Spooner.

Christophe Leclerq is the founder of and Sharon Leclercq-Spooner is board member of Fondation EURACTIV PoliTech. They both speak in a personal capacity.

As a French-English couple, we were driving recently from Brussels to Normandy, the Scandinavian-Continental roots of today’s United Kingdom. Since 1066 and the Norman conquest, Britain has been deeply connected to Europe. And as we drove along, we were reminded about one of our wedding gifts, ‘Les rois maudits’, a book on the hundred years war. The old brotherhood turned into rivalry and then back to cooperation…

Today, desires for independent sovereignty are confronted with the realities of interdependence. Thinking of our bi-national offspring on the backseat, we turned to the future: how to keep the UK in the EU while allowing progress in European integration for others?

On 14 November a jury chosen by the media will release its list of ‘Top 40 influential Brits in Europe’. British politicians and policy professionals still greatly influence the future of the EU. However, some individuals are doing so in such a manner that the country itself is losing ground. This is a real shame.  

Europe needs Britain just as much as Britain needs Europe. Free trade and financial markets came from England. The 1992 internal market and the start of CAP reforms were notably British ideas, under Margaret Thatcher. Britain supports a culture of good governance, policy consultations and tough budget evaluation. ‘Brussels’ may have a history of excessive legislation, slow processes and some unjustified spending. But these weaknesses are being tackled. Criticism from both sides is often ideological and no longer fully justified.

Being in a ‘club of one’ can feel lonely. The special relationship with the US has faded. Ireland remains in the eurozone. Actually, the UK club might shrink further: Scotland questions the United Kingdom, not the EU. Apart from neo-imperial dreams around the Commonwealth, where are today’s concepts under David Cameron?

Being anti-Brussels is not a unifying vision: it excites folks up to a referendum, but does not build a solution for the future. Allies in the EU are few: unfortunately, British proposals, however sound, are increasingly viewed with cynicism. Countries that want to reform ‘Brussels’ do not address London, but Berlin, and sometimes Paris. 

Just like France and Germany, rather than shouting from the sidelines, the UK could be “a force de proposition”. It is slowly learning that it cannot stop others.

The City of London’s concern about Brussels rules was misinterpreted by David Cameron as justifying an attempt to block the EU, end of 2011. In fact, internal market matters, including financial legislation, are voted at the EU Council of Ministers by majority. Rather than putting itself in a corner, the UK would be stronger making proposals and building alliances.

It would be foolish for the UK to give up its EU seat and rebuild a free trade zone outside the Union. This was the mistake of the 1950s, snubbing the nascent EEC and creating the ill-fated EFTA. In a global world, BRICS countries wish to trade better with the EU, not just Britain. The UK should not just be an EU policy-taker, in a European Economic Area, like Norway. Britain should also not become an ‘associated member’ as some politicians suggested: the EU has many association and cooperation agreements: association is too weak a concept. Rather, it might make sense to recognise the reality of variable geometry – i.e. that members of the EU club do have some choice on activities– as for Schengen and the Eurozone. 

This could be called a ‘Focused EU membership’. Just like some members already enjoy ‘enhanced cooperations’ on some specific policy matters, still using the normal EU institutions.

We are not talking here only ‘l’Europe à plusieurs vitesses’, long accepted by the EU establishment, since ‘laggards’ were expected to catch up. Now we need to break a Brussels taboo, and draw few concentric circles which are clearly distinct. Still, this is not quite the feared ‘Europe à la carte’, also known as cherry picking. The ‘focused membership’ builds on the initial Common Market, modernised, and includes labour movement, therefore not only economic regulation. Reformed institutions are needed anyway: this concept would complement the debate that Germany launched on political union for the eurozone. In fact, this new approach could apply inside the EU and outside, among candidates and neighbours. 

Indeed, one should connect ‘the UK question’ with a new vision for ‘Europe after EU28’ (Croatia becoming the 28th member in 2013). Equating European integration with EU enlargement is over: the artificial walls between ‘opt-out members’, membership candidates and other neighbours are crumbling. One third of Europeans are likely to stay outside the Union, but deserve the four basic freedoms, boosting growth for all.

This is where the idea of a Pan European market comes in. It is relevant for both non-eurozone members of the EU, like the UK and most of Central Europe, for Scandinavia, and for non-EU countries like Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and further East. In a 2010 article, we called this ‘the new EEC’. This grouping of very different countries will surprise some experts, especially those specialising on one of them. But looking into the future: is there such a big gap in substance between, on the one hand “EU less ‘opt outs’” for non-eurozone members, and on the other hand “Custom Union plus” for attractive neighbours? The main differences are institutions and foreign policy.

Thinking ahead rationally, business and civil society should offer new ways forward. For the referendum expected in 2016 on the EU, they, not just domestic politics, could help formulate the question. In fact, probably several questions. Pandering to eurosceptics on all sides and reflecting the departure clause of the EU Treaty, a conditional question on leaving the EU might be necessary. It should be complemented by a constructive question well in line with UK traditions, avoiding a confrontation course, and providing guidance for future governments.

That referendum could actually turn into a positive counter-fire to uncontrolled disintegration. How about this formulation:

  1. Should the UK lead a Pan European market boosting jobs and global competitiveness?
  2. Should the UK leave the European Union, if the country does not achieve its goals?”

This referendum, and the general elections in-between, are not the only fora. In the meantime, we have the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. One should think now of proposals for that debate, giving them democratic support. For example ‘changing European integration to fit the 21st century.’

For our English-French children, Europe is a reality, not a question. It is the same for continental students at English schools and even for monolingual Brits holidaying in Spain. Our car reached the Normandy coast at Deauville, where the 2010 Summit between Russia, Germany and France took place. Similar Pan-European ideas were expressed at that time: now the UK should not be sidelined again. Britain’s membership of the EU needs changes, but to stay in. Plus ça change…



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