David Cameron’s stance is a little bit confusing. The British Prime Minister hopes to find a common ground on which to work with the Union but at the same time threatens an in-out referendum for 2017. This conflicted stance makes visible the uncomfortable position in which the Tory leadership finds itself. Aware of the serious damage that an exit would entail for the UK but hard-pressed by the party’s grassroots and the threat of UKIP, the leaders of the Conservative Party seem to have somewhat lost control over events.
Ironically, the Brexit risks losing the UK that which it hopes to recover: its independence. In leaving the EU, the country would be abandoning the power to set the rules. On the contrary, the standards that are set in Brussels will continue to have a strong impact on Britain, all the more so given the highly disproportionate relationship that would exist between an isolated UK and a united Europe.
Besides its independence, there is also the unity of the UK that could be put at risk again. Scotland and Wales are far more pro-European than solitary England and could well disassociate themselves from the English politics of isolation.
It would also pose the question of Ireland. The Irish Republic and the UK have shared a “common travel area” since 1923. The UK’s exit would make the border with Ireland an external border of the European Union, which would undermine free movement between Belfast and Dublin. This would therefore serve to reinforce the division between the two Irelands, a subject which remains sensitive. It’s not likely that the Brits would be excited by the idea of reopening unhealed wounds.
Finally, without going into details, it seems clear that a Brexit would come with a high social and economic cost. A recent report by Open Europe concluded that in 2030, in the case of an exit, British GDP could be as much as 2.7% lower than if it had kept the current situation. The think tank has predicted that the UK could limit the damage, but only through the strong liberalisation of its trade with the rest of the world, itself leading to inevitable consequences for society. Finally, it is a safe bet that many of the big financial players, the heart of British economic power, would choose to be closer to the advantages that come with the huge, unified capital market that is the European Union. This probably explains the scepticism with which the idea of a referendum has been welcomed in the City.
The position of British conservatives stems from a logic that is no longer suited to the world of today. What weight does a middling European power have nowadays? Who could believe that they could negotiate on equal terms with the new Asian giants? There are already worried opinions now in the way negotiations are going with the Americans over TTIP. What would happen if our member states had to negotiate alone with someone ten times more powerful than them? There is a level of historical short-sightedness in believing that England could reign once again over the oceans as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only the European Union today can protect our states from relative decline, and be heard in the new concert of nations.
Now, instead of contributing to a common effort to create a Europe that is stronger but also less complex, more comprehensible to its citizens, a British exist would weaken an already difficult integration. Europe would lose the British contribution to the common budget (to the tune of €14bn), the fourth largest contribution in the Union after Germany, France, and Italy. Importantly, it would leave a military and diplomatic apparatus that, used on its own, would be dismissed by the emerging powers but if it were wielded collectively, would give power to the countries of the European Union that they represent as a whole.
For the Union, a British exit would set a very negative precedent. The danger is not so much that there would be further exits but rather the establishment of a culture of blackmail in the European institutions: “Give me this or that or I will jump ship”. Even more than today, discussion at the Council will look like the petty haggling of street merchants and the common good would be increasingly ignored. In short, it would be a death blow to community spirit. To conclude, let us recall that Thatcher herself, in her famous Bruges speech of 1988, defended British membership of the European Union, refusing “an existence isolated and on the margins” for her country. Europe has already shown that it can take into account the peculiarities of the British case. There is no reason to believe, besides electioneering, why the UK and the EU could not forge a compromise that is acceptable to all parties.