“UK to exit the EU: a very bad idea”

Posted on 9 avril 2005 par

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The UK is not necessarily headed towards an exit from the EU, but Britons will never give their support to deeper involvement. An article by Géraldine Vessière, L’Echo, 25 July 2012.

Official-photo-cameronThe UK is re-examining more than ever its role at the centre of the European Union. David Cameron recently declared that he was ready for a referendum on the subject while William Hague, foreign minister, announced a review of EU powers and their impact on British interests. The country is in a delicate situation, scared of losing both its sovereignty and and its influence. Interview with Robin Niblett, director of the think-tank Chatham House.

What pushed Great Britain to join the EEC when the country has always viewed the project with scepticism?

Churchill was rather in favour of the European project, but not for Britain. At the end of the war, we were almost bankrupt, but we counted on our Empire-status and on our relations with the Commonwealth countries to get us out of it. Twenty years later, we realised that wasn’t working. The sixties and early seventies were very difficult: the UK had lost its colonies and therefore its privileged access to the Commonwealth. It was also doing poorly in economic terms. The situation was such that it had to ask for help from the IMF in 1976. At the same time, the member countries of the European Economic Community were becoming prosperous again thanks to the Marshall plan and to German growth. The conclusion was therefore reached that it was better to be in the EEC than out.

Great Britain joined the EEC for economic reasons. It could also leave it for economic reasons…

Much of the population and many politicians will only ever see the EU in this way.

The fact is that the number of Eurosceptics is increasing. On one hand, the British people refuse to be associated with the euro crisis, and on the other hand, more and more think that European “overregulation”, especially in social and environmental matters, and bureaucracy are stopping the country from getting out of the recession.

What does the UK want?

The majority of Britons don’t want to leave the European Union. There is however a growing fear that the movement towards a more integrated Europe will exclude us from decision processes and weaken our influence. The question is: “can the UK be certain that agreements made by the EU will not be against our national interests?” This fear is becoming more and more of a solid argument to ask for a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

The problem is that, even if the majority of member states don’t wish to see us out of the EU, I don’t think that any of them are ready for a renegotiation. We will therefore be faced with an important and difficult decision.

Are we heading towards an exit from the EU?

This would be a very bad idea. We underestimate the importance of being involved in discussing and writing EU rules. The UK has lots to win in being part of the single market. Leaving it would be a very short-term vision. We would be weakened in negotiations with countries such as China or India, with which we want to deepen our relations.

Nevertheless, I share the opinion that the directives, especially concerning working hours, are too restrictive. But this isn’t reason good enough to leave the EU. One of our recent surveys revealed that 31% of Britons we asked would like to stay in the EU and 26% don’t want any part in it. It’s between these two extremes that there is room for manoeuvre.

So in that case why not participate in the European Integration movement?

There’s no public support for this. To try this would be to commit political suicide.

What has Great Britain brought to the Union?

A great deal. Our representatives are considered as constructive in negotiations and efficient in drawing up clear and practical directives. Our presence also helps in the balance of power between France and Germany.

We have played a very important role in three or four areas: the creation of the single market – where the collaboration between Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterand was decisive, the enlargement of the EU – notably with Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, the position of the EU on environmental questions and in foreign policy, such as in Iran or in Syria. I’m not speaking about defence policy. On this point, Great Britain has always wanted to keep its sovereignty and has blocked all attempts at unification.

London is often viewed on the continent as slowing the EU’s evolution…

It’s true. As a country we have always mistrusted greater political integration. Firstly, Great Britain doesn’t believe such a project can be brought to a completion. The British people will never give up their country’s sovereignty.

Nor do they have an emotional attachment to the EU. Great Britain is an island. It had its own empire, it didn’t feel the need to belong to a Europe that was rebuilding itself. This perception was reinforced over time by politicians and the press, sometimes into the hands of the Eurosceptics.

Lastly, until the middle of the 90s, the country was unfavourable, in the American model, to the emergence of an EU as counterweight to the US. The paradox is that if today the US no longer fears a multipolar world and no longer views the EU as a counter-power, this concern still exists in the UK.

What are the main values that guide the UK’s attitude towards the EU?

It’s quite ironic. Great Britain shares more of Europe’s values than those of America, especially those to do with the death penalty, development co-operation or women’s rights. Culturally however, we are very different. We are incredibly independent. We don’t need a supranational court of justice telling us what to do or how to strengthen our European values. During the Second World War, we remained faithful to these whilst they were swept aside in Europe. I think that today, it is deeply anchored in Europe that people don’t trust their governments. They have therefore delegated part of their powers to supra-state institutions, but we don’t need these.

Interview by Géraldine Vessière

Translation by Tom Smith

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