As Britons debate whether to stay in the European Union should Brussels consider the advantages of a British exit?
The European Union (EU) faces major solidarity challenges irrespective of the result of the United Kingdom’s (UK) June referendum on whether to remain in the union. If the UK leaves, Brussels is concerned that it will create a domino effect that will lead to the EU’s dissolution. Yet if the UK stays, Brussels will have to face the fact that it has fostered a culture where members can capitalise on its fear and blackmail the union into receiving favourable treatment. Confronted with these options, Brussels should welcome the advantages that come with a British exit (a so-called Brexit).
Under electoral pressure from the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK’s membership in the EU and to hold an in-out referendum on the new deal. On Friday 19 February, London and Brussels concluded negotiations on a new settlement that gives the UK ‘special status’ in the EU. A referendum has been set for 23 June and Cameron has vowed to campaign to remain in the union. But he faces an uphill battle. A recent poll shows more Britons will vote to leave the EU than remain (38% compared to 37%, with 25% undecided) and key members of Cameron’s Conservative Party support a British departure, including London Mayor, Boris Johnson.
The European Commission will not participate in the referendum campaign. However, Brussels hopes that Britons will vote to stay in the union. On the surface, this is an unsurprising position, as the UK is a valuable EU member. It has the bloc’s second largest economy and third largest population, and it wields a veto in the United Nations Security Council. It is also the EU’s most powerful military force and it is one of two states in the union that have nuclear weapons. These features strengthen the EU economy and increase its influence at global diplomatic tables. But they do not make the UK indispensable.
One of the UK’s complaints about the EU is its aspiration to become “an ever closer union”. Britons actively oppose this concept; of their 73 members of the European Parliament, more than half have joined Eurosceptic parliamentary groups. Underlying the UK’s Euroscepticism is its lack of a European identity. Continental Europeans increasingly feel ‘both national and European’, rather than just ‘national’. The UK has gone the opposite direction, with the gap between those identifying as ‘national’ and ‘both national and European’ widening from 19% in 1992 to 33% in 2015. Even if the UK votes to stay in June, there will be recurring difficulties between an increasingly ‘European’ mainland Europe and a ‘British’ Britain. It would be better for the UK to leave now rather than prolong the political turmoil.
Economics are another major issue in the Brexit debate. Particularly controversial is the UK’s status as the fourth highest net contributor to the EU budget. However, these fears are overstated. Two-thirds of the UK’s contributions are returned as a rebate. The outlay is covered by other EU members, who effectively pay double the UK’s share of their gross national index to Brussels. Yet the UK still enjoys all the advantages of EU membership, including net economic benefits at least six times larger than its contribution. Brexit would put an end to the UK’s subsidised membership and force it to stand on its own feet when trading with Europe.
Not all Britons support leaving the EU. Notably, Scots are strongly in favour of staying, with a poll in February finding 62% prefer to remain while just 26% want to leave. This feeds into the Scottish independence debate; the same poll found 54% of Scots would vote for independence if the UK leaves the EU while only 39% would still reject separation. Additionally, an independent Scotland can only join the EU with unanimous support from EU members, something the UK - embittered by the separation - would be unlikely to allow. But if the UK leaves the EU, London would lose its veto over Scottish accession. Hence, Brexit would reopen the door to Scottish independence and enable the UK’s strongest pro-EU population to re-join the union.
Brussels needs to consider which outcome of the UK referendum it really prefers. If Britons vote to stay, Brussels will have to continue dealing with a troublesome and freeloading UK while managing a clamour of demands for special treatment by other members. Yet if the UK leaves, it will likely stumble economically and sunder politically, which will warn other members against mirroring the Brexit. The quick accession of an independent Scotland would restore confidence in the union. Brussels would be better served if Britons vote to leave the EU.
William Baulch is an International Relations and International Security Studies graduate from the Australian National University.
Image credit: European Parliament (Flickr: Creative Commons)