Fool Britannia? The UK and a Multi-speed Europe

Professor Alex Warleigh-Lack

At the European Council summit this evening and tomorrow, David Cameron must face up to a dilemma that has plagued all his predecessors since John Major: can Britain really be at the heart of the European Union while choosing to stay out of many key EU activities?

It was Prime Minister Major – also a Conservative plagued by Euro-phobic party colleagues whom he notoriously dubbed ‘the bastards’ – who first set Britain on the opt-out path regarding official EU policy, ensuring the UK stayed outside the single currency and also much social legislation. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown altered this dynamic, although under Blair theUKdid opt back in to certain aspects of social policy.

Under Mr Cameron, the misfit between theUKand the rest of the EU has arguably increased. He took his party out of the Christian Democrat Euro-party family, consigning the Tories to minimal influence in the powerful European Parliament, and the recent EU Act enshrines into UK law the so-called ‘referendum lock’ on future Treaty change. If rejection of an EU Treaty is the will of Parliament, then so be it. But as a bargaining chip, if it were so intended, the EU Act is proving worthless: the rest of the EU Heads of State, particularly those of Germany and France, have indicated that they are quite happy to save Mr Cameron the bother of a referendum by leaving Britain out of the new EU Treaty changes altogether.

What this reveals is not only a failure to grasp the nuances of EU politics, but also arrogance about how important British involvement in the rest of the EU is considered by other member states to be. There was a time, at the start of the integration process, when UK involvement was desperately sought by some of the smaller initial member states to balance out French influence, but we disappointed them by staying out. The Thatcher years were, to put it mildly, strained. Under New Labour, many thought the UK could lead an Atlanticist neoliberal bloc, fronting an alliance of pro-market states largely from Eastern Europe. But that didn’t work very well, not least because the UK didn’t really try. But even if it had, there are clearly limits to how far a state can drive the EU car, so to speak, when in some key areas it sits on the back seat, and in others it’s not in the vehicle at all.

So Mr Cameron faces a dilemma in Brussels over the next 48 hours. His main task in defence of UK interests is not to ‘defend the City’ – partly because this means prostituting the nation to transnational capital yet again, an issue about which he is unlikely to care, but also because there’s no immediate threat from the EU to the UK’s meretricious stance regarding global financial markets. Instead, his main job must be to keep the door open to a multi-speed Europe.

This may sound counter-intuitive given the panic about UK marginalisation if plans for a deeper union of the euro-zone countries goes ahead. It is also easy to slip into Schadenfreude, since many of us have pointed out for several years the danger to the UK of carping from the sidelines while failing to be constructive, to which people may finally be starting to wake up. If so, all to the good.

But the risk for the UK is not that the EU will move towards a multi-speed Europe. The EU has been multi-speed for years, if not ever since it started. The danger is that the EU will move to a two-speed model, in which the UK is thrown permanently to the second tier. This would do far more to harm British interests than a tiny tax on financial transactions or employment rights for working people, both of which Tory Europhobes deplore, since it would lock us out of many key discussions and decisions while also making the single market, the major achievement of UK policy towards the EU, less beneficial for us than it would be for at least 17 of our partner states.

The traditional argument against UK marginalisation is that we contribute more than any other state except France to European integration in defence and security policies. So we do. But these aspects of European integration are far less advanced than their economic equivalents, and if need be the EU could do without them – although it’s more likely that it would carry on without the UK in that area of its activity too if need be.

So, in Brussels Mr Cameron must find a way to agree to the measures proposed by France and Germany while getting something to shout about to his domestic critics and ensuring that the bigger issue – keeping the door to a multi-speedEuropeopen – is also addressed favourably. Fool Britannia? Let’s hope not. But the old girl has certainly been making some bad calls lately.


Alex Warleigh-Lack is Professor of EU Politics at the University of Surrey and Executive Director of CRONEM.