Eppur si muove: Britain and the EU

Having already spent some time this week discussing Thatcher and the EU, there is a temptation to revisit the topic as part of the on-going efforts by (seemingly) every political commentator in the country to appropriate her memory. However, such obsessing with the past is a big part of the British dysfunction when it comes to European integration, so instead I will try to look forward.

In the midst of other events, one story that nearly slipped under the radar was the announcement between the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy that they will now engage in more automatic sharing of banking data, in order to combat tax evasion. This (not so coincidentally) comes in the same week that other member states with more secretive banking sectors have finally signalled their willingness to open up on disclosure.

This is a good example of soft coordination. The genesis of the idea appears to lie in the US’s FATCA model and an emerging international consensus on the need to capture increasing volumes of tax evasion/avoidance.

What is particularly striking is the clear intention that this is meant to serve as a potential model for more formal EU regulation in a later phase. Even though it sits outside the enhanced cooperation provisions and is described as a pilot, the membership of the group clearly points towards this being rolled out much more widely. In so doing, it highlights the flexibility of the system, the primacy of member states and – importantly – the constructive contribution that the UK can make.

This last point is rather telling, since that contribution is not being made very much of. Notwithstanding Thatcher’s upheaval of the news agenda this week, the Treasury website has limited itself to a press release – quoting a junior minister, rather than the Chancellor – while that has only been picked up by a couple of news outlets.

Just as David Cameron’s EU tour has fallen victim to the new schedule – notwithstanding his impending meeting with Angela Merkel – so the lack of willingness of either the government or the media to make much of a constructive advance with European partners is telling, especially when we consider that even the usual sceptic suspects have not made a fuss about it.

As has been argued repeatedly here, too often does the normative agenda overshadow the practical benefits of integration: without a step back from the former, the latter will become ever harder to achieve, which is to no-one’s benefit. If we look at the UK’s relations with the Union, there are many examples of a real benefit resulting, on both sides. Some calm reflection on this might do everyone some good.