Britain was once an empire, its colonies extending around the world. Today it is one other country member of a league of nations that strives to become a federal political union. It is not even one of the EU founding members, but rather a reluctant late-comer who has joined because it had no other choice and primarily for economic reasons.
It is a curious reversal of identity – from colonizer to an unstable state of fearing colonization – and as a citizen of a former British colony I am tempted to think, it ‘serves them right’ – but Schadenfreude and joking apart, this has been quite a serious transformation and the British, as a collective, have yet to digest it. This explains their difficult (strange, arrogant … all of the above) relationship to the European Union.
(And if you were to think I am over-psychologizing, then just take a moment to recall the feelings of British pride emerging in the course of the successful organization of the Olympic Games last summer – the ‘glorious rebirth of Britishness,’ or so the ‘Daily Mail’ – and you will know what I am talking about.)
This fear is quite prevalent in David Cameron’s EU speech which builds on six premises and advances the following points:
• Securing peace was the ‘first purpose’ of the European Union. This has been achieved.
• The main challenge today is ‘securing prosperity’ in the face of economic competition or ‘a new global race of nations.’
• Britain is ‘an island nation: independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty’ (– a little bit of denial always goes a long way!!).
• This explains why for the British, the European Union is ‘a means to an end … not an end in itself,’ a pragmatic approach (– no offence taken).
• Britain is not just independent, it is also an open nation: ‘I am not a British isolationist.’ (Aha!)
• There are two sides of the European Union: the Single Market (good thing) and the political union and related mechanisms (bad thing) (talk about splitting!)
• Britain wants the Single Market (good thing).
• Britain does not want a political union (bad thing).
• To seek more integration is ‘more of the same’ and ‘more of the same will just produce more of the same: less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs.’ (What a sentence!)
• Britain wants flexibility and flexibility is to be understood as follows:
• Despite not agreeing to political integration, Britain wants to have a say in (Treaty) decisions affecting the Eurozone since such decisions will impact on the Single Market, thus on Britain’s competitiveness.
• In the name of democratic accountability, there should be a referendum on whether Britain shall remain a member of the European Union.
• This referendum will, however, not take place now but in three to five years time. This gives Britain’s European partners an opportunity to accommodate Britain’s interests so as not to lose a strong and valuable partner.
• Exiting from the European Union is not a good option for Britain. ‘Of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we choose to do so. So could any other member state. But the question we will have to ask ourselves is this: is that the very best future of our country?’
• (And some more pragmatic pro-EU discourse for the end): ‘Even if we pulled out completely, decisions made in the EU would continue to have a profound effect on our country. But we would have lost all our remaining vetoes and our voice in those decisions. … The fact is that if you join an organization like the European Union, there are rules. You will not always get what you want. But that does not mean we should leave – not if the benefits of staying and working together are greater.’
Cameron and his advisers are not the best speech writers and this partly explains his convoluted line of argumentation. But at another level the style is quite authentic in revealing both the internal inconsistencies of the British (Conservative) position and the inability to come to terms with it.
David Cameron is correct to highlight that the European Union began as a Single Market and that the removal of barriers to competition does not necessitate a political integration even if requiring the harmonization, at least in part, of standards (social, environmental, safety, etc.). But the European Union ceased to be just a Single Market long before the present crisis – at the latest when it was decided to establish a monetary union back in the early 1990s.
Yet a monetary union cannot function properly without a fiscal union, a central bank, common supervisory bodies in the finance sector, etc. etc. – in brief a political institutional arrangement that makes it possible to balance the interests and needs of the (rich) centre with those of the (poor) periphery, among else through the uncomplicated transfer of funds.
Cameron seems to recognize this when he admits that the Eurozone has a right to proceed with reforms and that such reforms are necessary in order to better deal with future challenges. But he stubbornly maintains the British ‘no play’ position and that for two reasons: first, he is worried about British public opinion, his own party and the next elections (three things he tends to confound); second, the Europe of ‘two speeds,’ which he so laments, is already a reality and – bummer – Britain is stuck on the wrong side. Hence also his wish to see the process of political integration slow down.
If he succeeds, that is bad news not only for Europe but also for Britain. Britain will always be a proud ‘island nation’ with a celebrated – yet sometimes inglorious – past. That is beyond doubt. The question is rather what shall its future be.
For guidance, the British may like to pay attention to the fourth verse of their national anthem which goes like this: ‘Lord make the nations see / That men should brothers be / And form one family / The wide world over.’