Britain: The annoying European
Truly, Britain is not just a bad European, but a very annoying one. David Cameron half-admitted as much in his speech in Davos Wednesday, when he quipped, “frustrated as [our European partners] no doubt are by Britain’s attitude.”
The U.K. joined the European Union late, spending more than a decade after the end of the World War II arrogantly believing that Europe was too small for it. When it did join under a Conservative government, the next Labour government under Harold Wilson demanded a renegotiation and a referendum on membership – which produced a fairly convincing yes.
Another Conservative government was elected in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher. It brought endless conflict with Brussels. Thatcher lost her leadership, partly because of a battle within the Conservative Party over Europe. Her successor, John Major, took the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – then abruptly left it in 1992. Labour came back in 1997 with a European Union enthusiast, Tony Blair, as leader – but wouldn’t adopt the euro. These days, the Tories are back and are deeply skeptical. This week their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, took a leaf out of Wilson’s book, demanding a renegotiation and then a referendum on membership.
If European leaders are only “frustrated,” as Cameron suggested, they’d be using a polite word.
At root, beneath the debates, there is a political-philosophical divide. The founding members – France, Germany and Italy, with the smaller states of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – accepted, at least in theory, that once the Union was created, their states’ power would wither and the new state’s power would grow. This was not how most British politicians saw it. They saw instead a market mechanism and a union of convenience, not the creation of a new state power. Yet at least to some extent, that’s what has happened: The EU does exercise substantial power. And the power is the problem.
At the heart of Cameron’s speech is a recognition of this as well as a recognition that it is a problem not just for Britain but also for all EU members. The crucial passage was where he ticked off the great issues:
“First, the problems in the euro zone are driving fundamental change in Europe. Second, there is a crisis of European competitiveness, as other nations across the world soar ahead. And third, there is a gap between the EU and its citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years. And which represents a lack of democratic accountability and consent that is ‑ yes ‑ felt particularly acutely in Britain.”
We don’t know how Europe, and especially the 17 members of the EU that are also members of the euro zone, will agree to integrate their economies, to attempt to avoid the lack of fiscal discipline that is at the root of the crisis. But it is likely to be more than tinkering. It will be, as Cameron argued, a “fundamental change.” That being the case, a new agreement among all the members will be required.
Second, European competitiveness has dropped further and further behind that of the United States for 20 years. As Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, has said, to use the word “union” in this context is misleading. Some of the northern countries, like Finland, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, score high in competitiveness. The southerners score low, with France somewhere in between. The Union yokes together extremely dissimilar countries, which, in some cases, have become more dissimilar. To improve the competitiveness of all, and to bring the laggards up so the disparity between north and south is less stark, is essential. But it’s also hard, and too little attempted.
The greatest of Cameron’s issues is democracy – or its lack. Cameron was right once more when he argued that:
“There is a growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf. And this is being intensified by the very solutions required to resolve the economic problems. People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.”
Europe is deeply undemocratic. It has great power – but people do not know how to make it accountable. They do not know who represents them in the European parliament. Most do not care. Politics remains national, or local, as Professor Sarah Hobolt, one of the brightest young scholars of European issues, argued in her inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics last month. The European Commission and the European parliament have no real accountability before the voters of Europe, and the “crisis has increased EU control of fiscal arrangements in member states ‑ but that has meant that accountability for fiscal arrangements has been lost.”
I do not believe Britain will leave the EU. A poll taken a month ago showed a majority of people saying they would vote to leave. The same poll a few days ago showed that had become a minority of around 40 percent. Forced to think about the issue because of the large amount of discussion over Cameron’s speech, people grew cautious. A referendum would have the same effect.
Britain will stay in. But the EU must find a way to become more democratic. It must find some way of engaging with its citizens; of making them care and understand what it does. Elections must be made to mean something.
Cameron did follow a hallowed British prime ministerial tradition. He was annoying. He knows that the price of leaving the Union would be too high – but the risk is that the path he has chosen to underpin membership through renegotiation and a referendum may jolt Britain into exiting.
Yet he should, all the same, be listened to. His speech had some grim truths, annoying as they may be.
PHOTO: Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse