The UK general election on May 7th is one of the most anticipated political events this year, with European capitals closely following polls and interpreting campaign rhetoric. EU membership and the basic principles thereof have been called into question by several parties and the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised to re-negotiate UK membership in the EU and put this new deal to a referendum by 2017.
To discuss what this new deal would entail, experts from the UK, France, and Germany came together at an event organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Open Europe, and the French Institute of International Relations.
Cross-party consensus in the UK
Mats Persson, Director of Open Europe, started off by pointing out that a cross-party consensus existed in the UK on several issues with regards to EU relations: Staying out of the Eurozone, for example, as well as preventing that the EU becomes an extension of the monetary union. Furthermore, British parties advocate for the introduction of a so-called “Red Card,” a new mechanism in the legislative process, which would give national Parliaments the power to thwart unwanted EU legislation. Lastly, “benefits tourism” is something that parties want to combat, i.e. the alleged abuse of welfare benefits through EU migrants. Persson underlined that David Cameron would also push for an EU competitiveness agenda, completing the single market and enhancing free trade agreements with other nations to wholeheartedly recommend a “yes” in a referendum. Should Labour win the elections, prospects for Britain’s EU membership would be very gloomy in the long run, he said. A Labour government would not adequately address the critical issues of the EU-UK relationship, thereby increasing euro scepticism in the long run.
A side-lined UK?
Vivien Pertusot from the French Institute of International Relations said that the domestic debate was already hurting the UK on a European level. “They are drifting away from important policies,” he explained, speaking about Council negotiations where representatives were under pressure to reconcile their interest in advancing important EU policies with the controversies of the domestic debate. A further detachment of the UK from the legislative debates would also hurt other countries, he said. “Some Member States would be completely lost in the negotiations because they are unable or unwilling to say ‘No’ to Germany and France.” Regarding the UK’s plan to stay out of the Eurozone, Pertusot underlined that the UK was risking staying outside the “core” of the EU, thus being side-lined on important questions of further integration. With regards to possible treaty change to accommodate the UK’s “shopping list,” he emphasized France would not want to run the risk of putting the treaty to a new referendum.
No emotional attachement to the EU
At this point, Syed Kamall, British MEP and Chair of the ECR group in the European Parliament, joined into the debate, explaining the rationale behind the UK’s sceptic outlook on further integration. He recounted meeting voters who said “This is not what we voted for in the 1970s” when Britain held a referendum on ECC membership. Kamall said that the British conceived of the EU primarily in terms of free trade and not in terms of political integration. “They don’t want something like the United States of Europe,” he said. “The UK is not emotionally attached to the EU unlike other countries like Germany and France.” A guest in the audience later took up this point, explaining that unlike England, Scotland’s attachment to the EU was in fact very much based on historical and emotional ties.
Preventing “Brexit” – but not at all costs
Discussing a possible “Brexit,” i.e. the possibility of the UK leaving the Union, Mats Persson said that there was no model outside the EU yet which would be fitting for the UK. Instead, a new model of cooperation would have to be invented. Stefani Weiss, Director of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s office in Brussels, underlined that Germany was very much interested in preventing a “Brexit,” but that the EU could not mitigate its key principles, such as the freedom of movement. She also pointed at a more strategic angle: “Not all Member States are equal,” she said and that Germany needed the UK and France to share leadership responsibilities with. That the EU needs constant reform is self-evident for Ms Weiss, however, she said, negotiations should take place with all countries. Weiss also wondered why UK politicians remain silent about the many ways in which the UK has shaped the EU in the past according to their ideas and ideals, especially with regards to the single market.
A member of the audience took up this point and criticized that Brussels fostered its special jargon, which excludes the average citizen from fully understanding the EU. He said that a referendum would challenge the “master-class” to explain their positions better and listen to the people, because in the end “the people’s views are the only views that count in a democracy.”
Photo Credits: Press Club Brussels Europe/Bruno Mariani