Global Insight

January 13, 2013 4:46 pm

EU patience wears thin over UK stance

The bloc has unhappy memories of referendums

Like London buses of old, European anniversaries take a long time coming and then arrive all at once.

On January 22 Angela Merkel and François Hollande, the German chancellor and French president, will lead celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Elysée treaty of postwar Franco-German reconciliation. Only tin diplomatic ears, or minds closed by arrogance, would have been able to explain why British policy makers failed to care that Paris and Berlin might be offended if David Cameron had chosen that date for his long-awaited speech on Europe.

Perhaps, subconsciously, the British are thinking of another, more unpleasant 50th anniversary that passed last month largely unnoticed across Europe. In December 1962 Charles de Gaulle, France’s then president, vetoed Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community, forerunner of the EU. Rubbing salt in the wound, de Gaulle mischievously sang the Edith Piaf song “Ne pleurez pas, Milord” (“Don’t cry, my lord”).

That episode recalls how some of the UK’s allies – starting with the French – have always questioned whether Britain’s imperial past, its island geography and its sense of comfort in the English-speaking world make it a suitable partner for building a united Europe. Over four decades of UK membership, however, other governments have generally found a way to accommodate British premiers.

For Harold Wilson, they retouched Britain’s entry terms so that he won a 1975 referendum on UK membership. For Margaret Thatcher, they devised a multibillion-pound EU budget rebate. For John Major, they accepted that the UK need never adopt the euro. For Gordon Brown, they turned a blind eye in 2007 when he skipped a ceremony at which all other leaders signed the EU’s Lisbon treaty, arriving hours later to initial it on his own.

Little by little, though, patience is wearing thin. Nations such as Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, which share Britain’s free trade outlook or its Atlanticist foreign policy, have no wish to sit in the same boat when Britain obstructs EU business. Poland and other countries once in Moscow’s grip appreciated British support for EU admission in 2004-07. But self-interest now dictates that they keep their distance from a member state regarded as marginalising itself largely because of domestic party politics.

Senior Brussels policy makers, remembering Britain’s energetic role in building the EU’s single market and promoting enlargement, do not want the UK to leave. As Olli Rehn, the bloc’s monetary affairs commissioner and a football devotee, puts it: “If I were a Briton in the EU, I would prefer to be in the midfield as a playmaker, rather than sitting on the sidelines as a substitute. You never score goals from the bench.”

There is, however, much anxiety that Mr Cameron will commit himself in his speech to a referendum on revised membership terms. Few EU leaders see scope for an extensive renegotiation: Britain already has many optouts, and demands for even looser membership might open a Pandora’s box. Should other countries follow the UK lead, it would undermine the more integrated Europe that is seen, in most EU capitals, as the key to stabilising the economy and enhancing Europe’s weight in the world.

Moreover, the EU has unhappy memories of referendums, stretching from Denmark’s “No” to the Maastricht treaty in 1992 to the French and Dutch rejections of the EU’s constitutional treaty in 2005, and Ireland’s “No” to the Lisbon treaty in 2008. EU leaders fret that, even if Mr Cameron ran a wholehearted campaign in favour of continued membership on revised terms, it might blow up in his face. The EU would then face its first ever split, an event with unpredictable consequences for Europe’s political and economic architecture.

For many countries, a British exit would bring to life an uncomfortable modern version of the long-buried “German question”: how to maintain a stable European balance of interests with an ever more powerful Germany, a less influential France and a Britain retreating into its shell.

Few, including the Germans, want matters to reach such a point. To their disappointment, Mr Cameron’s speech may push Europe closer towards it.

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