Britain’s Catch 22

Many commentators have discussed at length the ‘awkward relationship’ the United Kingdom has with the European Union. More and more the UK’s place in this 28-member Union is entering the political discussion across the British Isles.

James Wharton MP of the Conservative Party proposed a bill regarding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU as a Private Members’ Bill in 2013. And as the bill undergoes its second reading in the House of Lords, there is speculation among analysts as to what will become of the bill. But I don’t want to discuss the novelties of the House of Lords, and the likelihood of it getting through the upper chamber without being radically changed; what I want to do here is address the rising call for a UK referendum and why both the UK and the EU are finding themselves in a position where a definitive answer to UK membership is increasingly necessary, and why Britons in support of the EU need to combat the preponderance of Euroscepticism in the media of the UK.
Even more recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, made headlines in the UK by announcing that “The UK could be forced to quit the European Union if [it] does not reform” (Source: BBC). This is in-line with the UK’s rhetoric to harness more leverage in the EU, while still attempting to maintain its uncooperative affiliation with the organisation. Hence, it’s becoming more and more obvious that a discussion needs to be had between these two parties about the future of the UK in the EU.
Ultimately, the UK needs to redefine its membership of the EU, for the sake of the UK and of the EU. David Cameron argues that Britain needs to have an even more disconnected role within Europe. And I do not think that this is the right direction for either Europe or Britain. The UK’s commitment to the European Project is quite half-hearted to start with – and I can’t see Brussels granting more accommodations and exceptions for the UK, or „opt-outs“ as they are known in political discourse – especially at a time when the impetus is clearly towards further integration. With the amount of concessions this island nation has, it’d be hard to imagine that the Prime Minister genuinely believes that he wants to explore the possibility of bargaining for more.
If the direction is indeed towards further integration, then the United Kingdom, as a member state, has the right to contribute to the discussion about the future of Europe. This may mean that the Union may lose its third largest member if the course the EU is taking is too asynchronous with British interests: further opt-outs are fundamentally at odds with European integration and unlikely to happen. Continued membership of the EU, for the UK, would likely call for further integration.
One of the tools that liberal democracies have to address such issues is through referenda. However, a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum would potentially be as constitutionally radical as a ‘no’ vote. For the resulting effects of the referendum to have more legitimacy, I would argue therefore, that the public debate would have to take this tone. While framing the debate in this way, of further integration, may be at odds with the dominant anti-European rhetoric in the British media, the British mustn’tmistake the debate as being ‘status quo’ versus withdrawal.
Merely suggesting having a referendum on membership of the EU is in itself dangerous, not just politically. While those advocating a public poll aim to cast opposition to a referendum as undemocratic, it is important to acknowledge the damage of uncertainty of the UK in the context of the EU, in terms of international relations and in global economics, which in turn have an impact on the citizens of Britain. It is safe to say that the country’s membership of the EU is at best cantankerous, but for the time being investors and international actors work under the assumption that the UK will remain, for the foreseeable future, a member of the EU. A referendum debate would undermine this security: producing a situation where observers would be unable to approach the UK in the context of remaining a member, albeit in an awkward position, or the UK as a global player in the unique position of not being a part of an economic bloc. Broadly speaking, this seems to be the position the Labour Party takes on the matter.
Even if the UK committed to having a referendum, an ‘out’ result would have near-incalculable consequences. Outside of the EU, the UK will no doubt face issues in negotiating (and renegotiating) numerous international treaties; with no guarantee that the agreements reached will be better than the current arrangement of these deals made by the EU (made, of course, with the UK), representing a union of 28 states. With no guarantees or vision, and a wholly idealistic idea of a Britain “going it alone”, a ‘no’ campaign would have a hard time providing an argument of certainty and security, without descending into xenophobic appeals.
So what is the UK to do? The politicians need to address the issue if the UK is to have a real influence in the EU as it furthers its integration. Hence, granting the EU more competences in order to aid further integration would not reflect too well on the UK, at least in the short-term, and is not likely to wash well with the current political discourse in the country. It is unthinkable that the current politicians would want to swallow this medicine.
Another alternative is to attempt to try and rein the EU back so as to make the arrangement more convenient for the UK. By being obstinate, the UK did win its latest opt-out from the European Stability Mechanism pact. Commentators, however, would point to this as the UK encouraging a ‘two speed’ Europe, undermining the nature of the European Project. The Conservatives are, arguably, attempting to achieve this change through institutional means. For instance, within the European Parliament, through the creation of the European Conservatives and Reformists party group in 2009, the Conservatives are attempting this very thing. However, with unfashionable ‘bed-fellows’, in this group, the Tories are unlikely to make much ground.
The UK finds itself in a difficult Catch 22 situation.

6 Gedanken zu „Britain’s Catch 22“

  1. Britain’s Catch 22: Exit, Voice, or Loyalty?

    Ein kluger, durchdachter und ausgewogener Beitrag, der mir sehr gut gefallen hat! Mit seiner Zielsetzung bin ich völlig einverstanden und möchte ihm zur Unterstützung einige Überlegungen hinzufügen.
    Aus theoretischer Sicht haben wir es mit einer Organisation/Gemeinschaft zu tun, und die Frage lautet: Wie weit sind die Repräsentanten dieser Gemeinschaft einerseits, ein bestimmtes Mitglied andererseits, mit der Mitgliedschaftsbindung zufrieden bzw., hier im Vordergrund, nicht zufrieden. Albert O. Hirschman hat zu der Frage, was im Falle der Unzufriedenheit zu tun ist, die in der Titelergänzung genannten Alternativen herausgestellt und untersucht (1970).
    a) Die Organisation/Gemeinschaft kann vergleichsweise nicht viel tun, sie kann nicht die Exit-Strategie wählen, nicht *austreten*, sie kann auch nicht großartig der connection oder disconnection *widersprechen*, sie kann aber für mehr Zufriedenheit mit der Mitgliedschaftsbeziehung werben. Das tut die EU, hat sie getan. Meines Erachtens belegt das Ausmaß des Entgegenkommens der EU gegenüber dem UK eine außerordentliche Wertschätzung gerade dieses Mitglieds. Es würde den Bewohnern der geschichtsmächtigen Insel gut tun, den bisherigen Konzessionen in erster Linie die große Wertschätzung von uns „Kontinentaleuropäern“ ihnen gegenüber abzulesen. Niemand sonst hat so viele Sonderregelungen erzielt.
    – Nicht genug?
    b) Damit sind wir bei den Überlegungen des Mitglieds bei Unzufriedenheit mit der Mitgliedschaft. Exit bedeutet disconnection, also Austritt, und hat Vor- und Nachteile. (1) Vorteile sind die nach Austritt Ungültigkeit von Verpflichtungen und Pflichten, (2) Nachteile der Verlust der Rechte. Schwierig ist es, hierüber viele verlässliche Fakten zu gewinnen, vielmehr sind Spekulationen und politische Strategien dominant. (Zu 1) Welche Verpflichtungen muß das UK nach Austritt genau nicht mehr wahrnehmen, finanziell, allgemein materiell, und besonders immateriell? EU-Vorschriften machen dann wohl mehr keine Angst, aber wirken sie nicht trotzdem in globalisierten Märkten auf Investoren, Staaten, Konsumenten? Wie weit macht der Austritt wirklich unabhängiger? (Zu 2) Exit bedeutet, dass man innerhalb der Gemeinschaft das Recht auf Voice verliert, in den Gremien nicht mehr vorhanden ist, kein Mitspracherecht mehr hat. Aber noch mehr: Wesentliche Informationen gehen verloren oder können erst verspätet gewonnen werden. Was aber vielleicht das Wichtigste ist: Eine Gemeinschaft ohne innere UK-Beteiligung und –Stimme wird sich anders entwickeln als mit ihr. Es ist kein Repräsentant mehr da, der ständig den Insel-Standpunkt, den transatlantischen Standpunkt, den westlich übereuropäischen Standpunkt einbringen kann.
    Fazit: Fortsetzung der Europäischen Integration ist nicht nur im Interesse von uns Kontinental-Europäern, sondern auch im wohlverstandenen Interesse von Great Britain.

  2. Didn't Cameron already commit himself to a referendum? What happened?

    In 2012, I read an interesting interview with Wolfgang Schäuble, acting, I assume, more or less at Angela Merkel’s disposition (whose agenda we can only deduce from what people around her say and do because she never speaks out herself). He proposed to have the president of the European commission elected directly by the European people. This would enhance a European public sphere and create general concern and awareness for Europe. At the same time, he said, the European Parliament should get more responsibilities and rights, while the European Council should be replaced by a second parliamentary chamber representing the nation states (like in Germany or the US). When asked about the problem of a 'two speed' Europe, he said: „Wir sollten anstreben, das alles für die gesamte EU hinzubekommen. […] Aber angesichts des nicht geringer werdenden britischen Widerstands gegen weitere Integrationsschritte, wie wir es etwa beim Fiskalpakt gesehen haben, hält sich mein Optimismus in der Hinsicht in Grenzen. Gut möglich, dass wir die neuen Institutionen erst einmal nur für die Euro-Zone schaffen müssen. Klar ist aber auch: Das wäre dann ein offener Club. Jeder Mitgliedstaat der EU wäre herzlich eingeladen mitzumachen.“ – My translation: „We should try and achieve all this for all of Europe. But considering the continuing British resistance to further integration, which we saw again during the negotiations about the fiscal pact, my optimism fades away. It is quite possible that we will only be able to create these new institutions for the Euro-zone. But it should also be clear that this would be an open club: Every member state of the EU would be able to join.“ (

    So why don’t we say: Two speed Europe, why not?

  3. The Referendum Bill going through the House of Lords is designed to make legally binding a referendum on the EU if the Conservative Party form the next government. So nothing happened, really.
    And, in my view, a Two-Speed Europe would change the way the EU works, undermining its very reason to exist. It'd essentially create EFTA+, consisting of the UK and whoever else wants to join the slower stream of Europe.

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