Reciprocity as the basis of European integration

In recent weeks, I’ve been caught up in a number of conversations with academics, practitioners and general members of the public about how the EU works.

One common theme running through these discussions has been the idea that any one country (usually the UK in these discussions) is being ‘forced’ to do things by the Union and that without that pressure this country would be able to run its affairs as it sees fit, without ‘interference.’

This provokes a number of responses from me.

Firstly, the EU is only a coercive system in so far as member states allow it to be. They create the Union through the treaties and reserve the right to amend those treaties as they see fit. Moreover, they hold the ultimate sanction of leaving the Union. But the fact that they don’t should suggest that the benefits outweigh the costs, in a global sense.

This leads to a second point. Integration is not always about winning: that’s why we have majority voting, so that we can overcome opposition. Therefore, it is to be expected that on some things, some states will lose out. But that comes with the much larger benefit that these same states will win on other matters. The Union is a big package deal, where states trade off costs to secure benefits.

Let’s take the UK. It does lose out on matters such as agriculture or financial regulation, but it has also been able to secure a functional internal market, the primacy of a NATO-led European defence, the introduction of subsidiarity¬†and – more prosaically – improved management in European institutions. The popular debate about the costs of membership remains essentially at the level of budgetary contributions, rather than the consideration of non-monetary aspects and so tends to ignore such matters.

Put differently, the Union doesn’t look like any one member state, but rather like a mix of all of them. Certainly, larger members have more influence, but that’s just as true for the UK as it is for France or Germany.

This is reciprocity in action: I give, so that you may give.

And this is really at the core of my position in the debates I end up having. If the UK (or anyone else for that matter) doesn’t engage with the bargaining, then why should anyone else? Imagine a friend who never showed any interest or flexibility in what they wanted, and to whom you would always have to cleave if you want to do something with them. You’d maybe tolerate it a few times (perhaps they have great conversation/connections), but it would be both boring and annoying, and at some point you’d find a friend who wasn’t such a pain.

States aren’t people, but the general point holds: there’s only so far that diffidence and unwillingness to compromise will take you, even if it does mean you can stay true to all your interests.

And even that’s not the case.

If the UK did leave the EU, it would still need to decide on some form of relationship. I’ll not go into the options here, but in short the UK would still be geographically next to a huge market and a significant international political actor, and good relations are always preferable to bad ones. With that in mind. what incentive would the EU have to accommodate all the UK’s demands for access and/or influence, notwithstanding the desirability of accessing British markets? That’s reciprocity in action, again, by the way. And because it’s in action, and because access is desired by both sides, we would expect a price to be extracted, either via financial contributions (a la Norway) or via a lack of institutionalised consultation (i.e. you have to take what’s given to you on specific regulation).

Even if nothing could be agreed, British firms would still want to sell into the EU, so would need to c0nform to EU standards (which are currently also UK standards), so there’d be no incentive to not continue to follow EU standards, even outside the Union: predictability trumps independence.

Doubtless, I’ll have more of these conversations in the weeks and months to come. Maybe more people will come to see that being king of nothing isn’t quite as good as it’s cracked up to be.