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Global Affairs

Once more unto the breach, Eurosceptics

Britain's possible exit from the European Union will feature on the agenda of this week's EU summit. Annoying as the British can be, EU leaders should resist the temptation to let them leave the union

LONDON • Should Britain remain a member of the European Union and, if yes, on what conditions? Those are the questions that EU leaders gathering later this week for their last summit of the year are expected to answer.

They are unlikely to agree on a common approach, even though everyone attending the summit knows that, in one way or another, the "British Question" will haunt Europe for much of the year ahead - for what's at stake in this debate is not just the fate of one European country; it is a much bigger tussle over the future political and security arrangements of an entire continent.

Politicians worldwide often express bewilderment when confronted with Britain's incurable and unremitting hostility to anything coming out of the EU. The benefits of cross-European cooperation in everything from trade to good governance seem so great and so self-evident that any British attempt to reject the EU is dismissed as an irrational act that can be interpreted only as the product of some strange mental condition requiring treatment and sympathy.

One frequent explanation of Britain's European scepticism claims that it is due to the country's inability to discard dreams of its far-flung but now dead empire. "Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role" - that is how United States statesman and former secretary of state Dean Acheson famously put it in the early 1960s.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Others believe the British are such awkward members of the EU because they can't resist the temptation to divide and rule - the tactic by which this small island nation has always dealt with the rest of Europe. Yet others ascribe all the troubles with Britain to the ordinary Briton's low opinion of anyone who lives south of the Channel, the strip of water that divides Britain from the continent. But none of these explanations is either correct or sufficient.

It is worth recalling that the European Project was started after World War II by politicians from countries that, for a variety of reasons, failed to provide prosperity and stability to their nations and therefore created a pan-European institution in order to save themselves from themselves.

That was the case with Germany and Italy, home to Fascist dictatorships that plunged all of Europe into war; with France, which tried but repeatedly failed to defeat Germany; and with the vulnerable nations of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, repeatedly devastated by wars unleashed by their bigger neighbours. In all these countries, people do grumble about the EU, but need no persuasion that it is still the best institution they can belong to, or that the alternatives available are far worse.

There was also one group of countries that joined the EU not because they failed as nation states, but because they simply believed it offered a better underpinning to further economic growth and trade efficiency. For these nations - chiefly Britain and the Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Denmark - the EU is not about a vision but about transactional arrangements.

Not surprisingly, therefore, these three nations are the ones that tend to pour cold water on every new initiative to tighten EU cooperation, and it is not by accident that none of them has adopted the euro as their currency. Britain is by far the biggest Eurosceptic, but the reticence expressed by other states about the EU is unrelated to a hankering for old empires or other illusions of grandeur.

To be sure, Britain's attitude to the EU is occasionally tinged with imperial nostalgia. It is a fact that Britain joined the union only after trying all other options. It is equally true that EU membership was presented in Britain as an alternative to the empire, and therefore came to be associated in the minds of British voters with their country's historical decline.

Nor can it be denied that the existence of an economically successful English-speaking world led by the US, one with which Britain enjoys close historical and cultural links, has allowed Eurosceptics in London to claim that their country can escape from Europe.

That claim is nonsense: Neither the US nor any other global trading nation is interested in forging a special relationship with the UK now. Still, the fact that such a possibility theoretically exists is a permanent complicating factor, and one uniquely British.

DIFFERENT POLITICAL ASSUMPTIONS

Still, the main driver of Britain's Eurosceptic sentiments is the fact that the EU is simply too different in mentality and political experience. The EU proceeds from the assumption that top-down regulation in most facets of human life is beneficial; in contrast, the British regard such regulation as an evil that must be tolerated only in extreme circumstances.

The EU likes to believe that serious political choices can be enforced on an unsuspecting public as purely bureaucratic decisions; the British consider such an approach dishonest.

In most of the EU member-states, welfare payments are made only to those who have themselves contributed to welfare funds through work; in Britain, welfare payments are distributed according to need and residence rather than previous work contributions, and this allows an unprecedented number of citizens from other EU member-states to come to Britain just to milk the welfare payments system.

In most of Europe, a citizen gets no services without producing his or her identity card; Britain, which has no identity cards, regards such documents as undemocratic.

A good case can be made that it is up to Britain to change. But there are no votes to be gained from being pro-European in Britain. The one connecting thread between Labour and Conservative politicians over the past half-century has been that none of them would risk their careers on behalf of a European project. The British tend to regard both their ardent pro-EU campaigners and passionate anti-EU ones as being slightly unhinged.

ANTI-EU WARNINGS CAME TRUE

Nor does it help that much of the previous criticism which Britain articulated against EU initiatives turned out be correct. British politicians refused to join the Schengen Agreement, which abolished internal border controls between EU countries, arguing that it risked a large flux of migrants coming through the weakest points in the EU's outer frontiers. That is precisely what is now happening.

The British refused to join the euro, arguing that the single currency would prevent nation states from exploiting their own competitive advantages and that, far from encouraging cohesion, it would divide Europe. Again, that is exactly what has happened.

Of course, being right is not the same as being popular, and Britain's unfortunate tendency to criticise everything in Europe is grating on other EU member states. Many EU politicians are arguing that, if Britain wishes to get out, so be it.

Although perfectly understandable, this frustration with Britain is also dangerous. British Prime Minister David Cameron needs only a handful of concessions from his European partners to allow him to recommend that his people say "yes" to Britain's continued EU membership when a referendum on this question is held, probably by June next year.

A "yes" verdict won't silence Euroscepticism for long - any more than the two-thirds majority for staying in the EU recorded when Britain last held a vote on this matter, back in 1975, was decisive in stopping the debate.

But what's the alternative? A British vote to leave the EU would have catastrophic consequences for the continent. It would remove from the equation one nation with truly globally capable military assets and a truly global policy vision. Britain's departure would also make the EU more inward-looking and more protectionist, since Britain is a standard-bearer for free trade.

But the most ominous outcome might be that Britain's exit could encourage other EU member states to leave as well, thereby destroying the entire European project.

It is bizarre that the EU was ready to spend hundreds of billions of euros to bail out Greece with the argument that any Greek exit from the European monetary union would have incalculable consequences on European stability, when people are now prepared to contemplate Britain's departure from the EU without fearing similar consequences.

Of course, the British are often annoying and occasionally silly. But accommodating such awkward behaviour from its member states is part of Europe's DNA.

And although EU leaders will find it difficult to agree to all the British demands during this week's summit, they can agree on one principle: that everything will be done to keep the British a part of the EU team - with all their peculiarities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Once more unto the breach, Eurosceptics'. Print Edition | Subscribe