What Does Europe Make of Britain?

3 November 2014

By Anthony Salamone

In the UK, the European Union frequently dominates the headlines. From the question of EU immigration to the current budget row, Britain’s EU membership is one of the most salient topics in national politics at the moment. It will certainly serve as one the central themes of the 2015 General Election campaign.

We spend most of the time discussing the implications of EU decisions here in Britain or the potential consequences of government action over ‘Europe’. The debate is very much focused on the UK. Other EU countries only come in where they appear to be on Britain’s side or where they stand in the way.

Although the debate in Britain may be inward-looking, the EU is by design a very international organisation. Across the European continent, people are watching on as Britain seems to totter back and forth from the idea of EU membership. Uncertainty and confusion are often the overriding emotions. No one can say with confidence that the UK will continue to the part of the European Union in five years’ time.

For the rest of Europe, unknowns about what Britain will do as regards the EU abound. The UK might hold a referendum on EU membership, depending on the results of the election in May 2015. If so, the British people could vote to the leave the EU – the consequences of which would fundamentally change the Union. Before then, Britain may not opt back in to some of the EU police and crime measures on which it has already opted out. The UK government might not pay extra money to the EU budget – possibly not in full, not on time or not at all. Most troubling, the UK might even break the EU treaties in order to reduce the number of EU citizens coming in.

In many minds across the EU, these prospects are met with a combination of bewilderment and frustration. Britain has always championed the Single Market – including the free movement of workers – why suddenly change? The UK gains so much from being in the EU and the rest of the EU gains from having Britain in – how could you want to give that up? Global geopolitics are being reshaped and the UK, while an international force, has more say working together from within the EU – surely you see this? Questions which as yet remain unanswered.

Britain has not always agreed with its fellow members on how the EU should work. However, its engagement has become ever more confrontational under the current coalition government. This approach has largely backfired and instead damaged the UK’s position in Europe. The Fiscal Compact veto, the Spitzenkandidaten process and the EU budget row all stand out as high-stakes failures. Such crises are extraordinarily unhelpful, as the UK needs allies in Europe but they are often put off by Britain’s threatening posture.

The paradox of Britain in Europe is that many EU countries admire its success and value its contributions, while the UK itself ponders a future on its own. In any organisation like the EU, disagreements over policy and procedure between countries are natural. The current debate in Britain goes well beyond that. It targets the core ideals of the EU and raises the question of where the UK wants to situate itself in the world. While the battle rages on at home, other European nations wonder what the outcome will mean for them.

In thinking of Britain, perhaps the greatest feeling from Europe is sadness. Dismay that the European ideal may be unravelling in a central part of the Union. Disappointment that domestic party politics threaten the important relationship of Britain in the EU. It’s not up to the rest of Europe to decide whether the UK stays in the EU – it’s Britain’s choice. But, should Britain leave, don’t be surprised if they don’t understand.

Anthony Salamone is a PhD Candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Honorary President of the European Union Society. He tweets @AMSalamone.

This article represents the views of the author and not the Edinburgh University European Union Society.