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Smart Victor, The European - 28 ottobre 1994
Great Britain and EU.


by Victor Smart

SUMMARY: Victor Smart on what would happen if the UK went for a policy of 'ourselves alone'.

(The European, 28 oct./3 november 1994)

At the very time new countries are joining the European Union, the idea of withdrawal is creeping on to the British domestic agenda.

Earlier in the month former finance minister Norman Lamont told a packed fringe meeting at the annual Conservative Party conference that he could cite no practical way in which EU membership benefited the country. There was "not a shred of evidence" that the other EU nations shared Britain's anti-federalist views on the future of the Union, he said.

To most of Europe Britain remains the "reluctant" member of the European Union. Even so, the prospect of the United Kingdom going as far as to pull out of this exclusive club of nations remains not just unthinkable but pretty much unmentionable as well.

"It would not be heresy but lunacy," commented one EU diplomat in Brussels while El Pais's Ricardo Martinez de Rituerto said: "This would be science fiction. Britain would so obviously be the loser."

To Bernard Jenkin MP, one of the able new generation of Eurosceptics at Westminster, the threat, at least, of withdrawal is now an inevitable and necessary tactic in the run-up to renegotiation of the Maastricht treaty in 1996.

"We are miles off actually coming out," he said. "But unless Britain is prepared to contemplate that act, we do not have any real negotiating position. We will be throwing ourselves on the mercy of whatever decisions the others care to take."

Two years ago after their narrow defeat on the Maastricht bill the small band of Tory Eurosceptics was being written off as an irrelevance. Their revenge came when their views jubilantly captured the mood of the party faithful at the annual conference. They have also swayed the prime minister, John Major, who cheerfully wielded the national veto against Jean-Luc Dehaene's nomination for the top job in Brussels and now strikes a more nationalistic tone generally.

Some observers believe that appeasing the Eurosceptics in this manner could force Major into a cul-de-sac where he would have to abandon any pretence that Britain was a good European. Cabinet ministers predictably disagree. "We are not on a narrow ledge about to fall into an abyss. We can champion our national interests perfectly well without putting in question our membership of the EU," said one.

Even so, events are driving Major towards a game of brinkmanship. By the next intergovernmental talks in 1996, Helmut Kohl will be only two years from retiring as German chancellor and, consequently, hellbent on one last push to make his vision of a federal Europe a reality. In Britain, the general election could well be fought in that year over the issue of Europe: Labour under its youthful leader pursuing a pro-European line and the jaded Conservatives banking on a "we defend Britain's interests" ticket to strike a chord with the ordinary voter.

At the 1996 IGC, Jenkin and like-minded Tories want not simply to halt the Kohl-inspired dash for federalism: they intend to reverse it. Jenkin argues: "It is hopeless simply to say: 'Thus far and no further'. The existing treaties already contain all the elements for a federal superstate. We need to renegotiate them and arrest the trend of the acquis, the body of basic EU law."

But how strong would Britain's hand be if it actually threatened to break with its EU "partners"? Oddly, most mainland European politicians recoil with horror from the question as if even to contemplate it were to raise the spectre of Britain's perfidy. For those willing to face the issue, the unequivocal answer is that Europe would be left hugely weakened if the UK did depart.

One top Brussels official, who normally cordially loathes British policy, commented: "There is a high degree of exasperation with Britain. But it would make no sense for one of the four European countries with a population of more than 40 million to come out. It would be a calamity for the EU."

Even so, Britons cannot take it for granted that they will be invited to stay on any terms they chose to dictate. Stanley Crossick, of the Brussels-based Belmont Policy Centre, said: "it would be a huge blow certainly, but mainly in terms of the EU's credibility, not its practical running. The process of integration would not be halted and it would be Britain that would be left disastrously marginalised, economically and politically." And among the cadres of officials in Bonn, the UK appears not to be valued especially highly for its centuries-old democratic traditions, nor even its cash contributions to Brussels' coffers.

Rather, Britain, as a power with a nuclear arsenal, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and a post-imperial country with ties spanning the world, is prized for its role in Europe's embryonic common foreign policy.

One source wryly commented: "With its wellhoned skills in diplomacy and its clout worldwide, any departure by Britain would deal a knock-out blow to Europe's common foreign and security policy ambitions. Elsewhere, on a single currency, for example, I am sure we could manage perfectly well."

Victor SMART

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