Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Britain and the European Union experiment

The prospects of a Brexit have highlighted the EU's many contradictions

In 1953, Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons, “We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed." UK Prime Minister David Cameron is currently trying to sell that same message to domestic constituents ambiguous about the European Union (EU) and Britain’s place in it. But more than six decades on, the European project is a very different beast. The negotiations late last week to consolidate the UK’s special status in the EU were Cameron’s attempt to convince the British people that Britain’s firewalls are strong enough for them not to vote for an exit from the union in 23 June’s national referendum. And they speak as much to the idea of Europe as that of the UK.

Cameron has touted several gains from the negotiations to allay domestic concerns about the UK’s independence in economic and immigration matters among other issues: a four-year restriction on in-work benefit payments to individual migrant workers operable over a seven-year period; safeguards to protect non-eurozone countries like Britain from discrimination by eurozone countries in the single market; a symbolic exemption from the EU’s stated goal of “ever closer union".

But British Eurosceptics aren’t buying it. They’ve painted the deal as tinkering around the edges without managing to safeguard British sovereignty adequately. Nor are they exclusively or even predominantly from the right-wing fringe UK Independence Party. Cameron’s own Tory party is a wellspring of anti-EU sentiment—to the extent that he has taken the extraordinary measure of lifting cabinet unity on the matter, with justice secretary and his otherwise ally Michael Gove campaigning for Brexit.

The referendum, however, is unlikely to revolve around the minutiae of the deal. It will come down to the British people voting on the broad idea of sovereignty: should their country march to London’s beat or Brussels’. It pertains to the core of democratic governance—rule by representatives elected by and answerable to the public. That idea is compromised to an extent by membership in the EU when citizens of a country are subject to regulations created by European parliamentarians from other nations.

It is not a debate restricted to the UK. Cameron’s negotiations may be notable for Britain’s audacity in insisting on an EU a la carte, but since the eurozone debt crisis hit in 2009, other countries have grappled with the same questions. German taxpayers have baulked at being asked to foot the bill for bailing out fiscally irresponsible countries, for instance. And the latter, like Greece, have been swept by resentment at the harsh austerity measures imposed on them for the bailouts—to the extent that Brexit’s predecessor Grexit dominated news cycles for a period last year.

Globalization, by definition, involves a compromise of traditional sovereignty; trade, climate change, migration, transnational security threats and a hundred other issues are no longer within the exclusive domain of any single government. But the EU, evolving as it did in the shadow of liberalism’s second coming—the neoliberalism and institutional liberalism propounded by Joseph Nye, Robert Keohane et al—has pushed the frontiers of this concept. In the good times prior to 2008, member states reaped the benefits. The difficult times that have followed—both economic and the current migrant crisis—have highlighted the costs of that compromise, particularly given the disparities in economic and political power between northern and southern member states.

It puts national leaders in the unenviable position of balancing their responsibilities to their domestic constituents and to the EU. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s predicament last year—when he held a national referendum where the majority of Greek voters rejected EU conditions for a third bailout, then had to kowtow to Brussels demands anyway—showed just how difficult it is. That difficulty has created space for the resurgence of far-right nationalism, Eurosceptic in many instances, from the UK to Norway to Romania to Cyprus. The migrant crisis and the hardening of European cultural identities in response has added to it. This has made the job of European leaders even more difficult.

Little wonder the EU is teetering between the inadequacy of a monetary union and the political difficulty of a fiscal one. The UK referendum is unlikely to result in Brexit, but it has highlighted the fissures that run through the EU. Others have taken note—Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Front party has promised a French referendum if she is elected in 2017. The European experiment has a long way to go yet.

Will Britain vote to stay in the European Union? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Close