22 November 2012, 15:09

Soul-searching: concern over Britain's role in the EU

Soul-searching: concern over Britain's role in the EU
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As the situation in the EU plays out, more and more now depends on its ability to stay together and work through these tough economic times. Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe, the European Сentre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Brussels, gave an interview to the Voice of Russian in which he explains the mountnig concern in Britain over the economic attractiveness of the EU and also sheds light on Britain's unique psychological situation, which has the country questioning its role in the world.

I think a lot of the exit talk that we hear in Britain at the moment also has to do with the current political debates and the current political atmosphere in Britain. It is not only the crisis, it is not only Europe per se but it is also the domestic situation over there which kind of makes this debate hotter than it probably is. But there is obviously a serious concern in Britain about its role in the EU and to what extent it should be involved. That is a very critical debate, it is very crucial. It is very important that Britain stays in for many aspects, both domestically and also in terms of the wider international sphere. So, it is the reason for concern for the rest of the Europeans. But ultimately it is a domestic British issue that the Brits need to resolve. And the current Government with its dependence and weakness doesn’t seem in the situation where it can resolve this issue.

From my conversations with the British experts I get a feeling that perhaps there is something, like they put it, in the European economic and political values which they find difficult to accept.

Well, they found it difficult from the beginning. And the kind of dilemma that they’ve been in is obviously that they like the economic and trade parts of the EU – the single market, the freedom of movement and capital and goods, obviously, - they like this. But what they never got over and found very difficult to accept is that obviously when you have a wider market between 27, or between 15 or 12, what you also need to accompany this and to keep it together is regulation. And this regulation is actually something as a prerequisite for also having a market. And this is the part that they always found dubious, even though it has benefited Britain greatly.

And in my opinion the Brits have developed an attitude towards Europe that is totally not in sync with the actual benefit that Britain has, both on the economic and on the political side. And there is a false consciousness, as the Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski has called it, a perception of the issue completely distorted and unrelated to reality situation, a perception of Britain about its membership in the EU. Britain is only interesting as a power in the world because it is in the EU and not so much because of its veto right in the UN Security Council. It is interesting for the US because it is in the EU. It is rich because it is in the EU. Nobody out there in the commonwealth is waiting for Britain.

So, I think that they are overlooking the facts and are getting carried away by a very emotional kind of moment in their own political development. And that is very scary and I hope that it goes away without causing too much damage both in Britain and in the EU and in a wider sense.

What they have also been telling me is that perhaps at the current situation, at the present period further integration of the EU might be a way to further difficulties and perhaps to some kind of deadlock.

Yes, I mean the British Prime Minister has said that – you continentals, go ahead with integration, we think it is a great idea, for example if the euro countries get closer together and form some kind of a fiscal union and more political integration but we, Brits, will stay out of it. It is a very typical position and attitude – you guys do the integration work, we are in favour of it because we benefit from it, but we don’t want to be part of it. This has been the British position from the very beginning. And they really stood outside and then reassessed when they realized that ok, it might be actually good for them as well.

So, I’m not surprised by this. What is surprising or what is unique at the current situation is that because of the domestic situation in Britain, because of the crisis in Europe and because of the overall shift of power in the world we have a unique psychological situation and the British seem to be affected by it most. There is a severe, great power blues that the Brits still have. There is still a tremendous amount of imperial thinking that has not really withered away and which is still very active in the debate. And there is obviously a look at the continent which is at crisis economically and it doesn’t look very attractive economically at the moment and governance of the EU seems to be very inefficient, at least this is what it looks like from the London perspective.

And then you have the domestic situation which is all about a British soul search – who are we, what is our function in the world, what can we do, what does immigration mean, we are not the same Brits any more than we were fifty years ago. And so, there is a soul search going on. And when you combine these three factors – you have a perfect storm of psychology and the target into which this kind of soul search that the Brits are doing at the moment is projected and the EU is the scapegoat for many of these things.

And the problem is that obviously there is much to be criticized about the EU. And I’m not gleamy eyed about the state of affairs – the EU is in serious trouble. But the way this is being discussed in Britain is far away from the real situation. And that’s what so bothersome, that collectively a nation seems to lose its sense of reality and this is what I very much fear.

What does the EU stand to lose if the UK walks out?

Well, it stands to lose a number of things. First of all, geopolitically Britain has always been an outside looking kind of world. It has always been in favour of enlargement, was in favour of a more outward-looking kind of approach – this is something that the continentals often don’t have, specifically the Germans are lacking this. This is something that the EU needs and this is why Britain is really indispensable.

Secondly, of course the military capacities. This will be mostly within the NATO, but to have the military capacities of Britain also as part of the debate within the EU is very-very crucial for the foreign policy debate. And thirdly, and this is extremely important for other reasons – Britain stands for free trade, for open markets, for a certain kind of liberal capitalist model that you don’t find on the continent. And you need this as a counterpart to the French and German models which are more state-centric, specifically the French, not so much the Germans, more interventionist, less liberal, less libertarian if you will. And you need that British attitude in the discussions in Europe.

The EU dominated by the French and to a less extent the German economic model is something that not only I personally find less attractive, but also a lot of other countries will find less attractive. And so, this is also one of the reasons why the Brits need to stay onboard.

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