“No man is an island” – can we avoid that Britain further alienates itself from Europe?

IMG_5398 (Kopie)   „Outward-looking, open and economically liberal, these are exactly the kind of criteria which the UK and Germany should share as their vision for Europe,“ with these words Vicky Ford MEP, member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, opened the debate with Rainer Stinner MP, Spokesman on Foreign Affairs of the FDP Parliamentary Group in the German Bundestag. Despite these shared criteria, it became apparent, that the vision of the future of the European Union looks very different in Berlin and in London.

The reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, just as an example, while celebrated in Germany as a great honour, was received with a reaction of utter disbelief in the UK. Centuries of different histories have shaped fundamental differences. “The UK thinks of itself as a global nation, not a European one […] we don’t feel the need to anchor our political system in that of a supranational body […] there is very little romanticism over the EU,” Ford explained. While for the UK, the single market is at the core of the EU, cooperation in other areas, particularly scientific research and development, should not be neglected. These should be the new priorities, instead of the continuation of wasteful agricultural subsidies. She also emphasized that it is up to the EU, and in particular Germany, to make it worthwhile for the UK for it to stay in the EU and pointed out that “as a net contributor to the EU budget we believe we should be thanked for our generosity; instead we seem to get criticism and insult, which we think is downright rude and unfair.”

IMG_5399 (Kopie)Rainer Stinner countered that the world in thirty years will be a multi-polar one, in which no single European country will sit at the table of decision-makers. “We need a vision for a joint and more integrated European Union,” he said. He conceded, however, that it may be high time to re-evaluate the organization of the EU institutions as such, as well as the distributions of responsibilities, based on the subsidiarity principle; but in the end, the goal will always be more integration. Stinner emphasized that Germany and the other EU-member states want UK on board and that up until a year ago he would have agreed that Germany wanted the UK to stay in the EU “under all circumstances”. This is not the case anymore. “Europe can live without the UK much more easily than the UK can live without the EU,” he postulated. “If the UK wants to have a say,” he continued, “it must be part of the game. Our future lies in a further integrated EU – and we invite the UK to be a part of it.”

Vicky Ford reacted, explaining the British domestic position. Under the present economic circumstances, UK citizens feel the consequences of budget cuts and reduced spending towards domestic infrastructure projects. The EU institutions, on the other hand, want to maintain the status quo and refuse to discuss cuts in administration costs, staff numbers, or reform of pension schemes. This cannot be explained to the British electorate. “Don’t lecture us about getting involved, if we feel like we’re massively involved already,” she said. British people felt cheated by the rapid widening and deepening of European integration, Ford explained. At the time the people in the UK voted to join the EU, they never imagined that the project would “escalate” the way it did.

IMG_5408 (Kopie)Stinner contradicted her by ascertaining that it was clear from the start that the EU was not a second EFTA (European Free Trade Association). When the UK decided to move from EFTA to EU, it should have been as clear to them as much as to the other European nations, that the EU was intended to be an instrument that would expand and develop further integration and harmonization. Consequently, it is up to the UK, not the rest of the EU, to decide whether they see themselves as part of the EU in the future. He added that “if Britain were to leave Europe, Germany would lose a major supporter.” It is a fact, however, that when he visits London today, the majority seem to be in support of holding a referendum. As a true believer in the European project, he cannot, with a clear conscience, sit in Berlin, pretending the mood hasn’t changed in the UK, pretending the UK embraces the EU or that it isn’t sceptic of further integration.

In the end, democracy also means to agree to disagree and to respect the partner for their divergent opinions. On one issue, however, our two speakers could merrily agree: the end of the “European Parliament’s Traveling Circus” between Strasbourg and Brussels each month, which shows that the shared rationality might over short or long, when national sentiments are overcome, lead to a more convergent vision of Europe.

To listen to an audio recording of the discussion, click here.

Susan Schneider