The Battle for Britain’s Future in the EU

A German perspective

February 29, 2016

A German perspective

As hard it is to comprehend for the former island empire, if the majority of Britons vote to leave the EU, the United Kingdom would be transformed from a rule-maker to a rule-taker.

That would make it a rather curious choice for a country that has historically prided itself on being an empire where the sun never sets.

Things become rather simple when you do the math: The common market without Britain consists of 444 million people (and customers), the UK has 64 million (14%).

The EU’s GDP is $15.55 trillion as of 2014, while the UK’s stands at $2.945 trillion (about 19%).

It is thus very clear who will call the shots economically in any withdrawal agreement that the UK would have to negotiate. This becomes even clearer when considering the political context.

There will not be much sympathy for giving the UK what it wants when leaving. Consider, for example, that the French will embark on a heated presidential election campaign next year, with Marine LePen of the extreme right-wing Front National advocating a break-up of the Eurozone.

But even if the EU, for the sake of argument, were to be much nicer to the UK than it was to Switzerland or other non-EU countries in Europe in the bilateral negotiations with them, the UK would no longer be a deciding member of the biggest economic club on the planet.

Britain’s role in the world

As things stand, the EU holds 16% of global trade – higher than the 14% share held by China and 10% for the United States.

To assume that the UK will be able to enter into new, more favorable trade deals with other countries outside the EU is beyond comprehension.

The same accounts for the geopolitical standing of the UK in world affairs. The UK might manage to become a larger version of Switzerland or Norway after a few very rough initial years – if that is what the British political elite and the British people want.

Given the imperial history and the historic feelings of the British, this might be even harder to comprehend.

The nationalist dreams of right and left

Why would the British want to leave the EU at a moment when everything they ever wanted – having access to the Common Market but standing on the sidelines when it comes to an “ever closer union” – is being handed to them on a platter?

What is puzzling is not just the very real possibility of Britain leaving the EU right now, but to witness the strange alignment of the political right and left in the UK on this issue.

The right is playing the keys of national sovereignty and self-determination, hardly masking the hostile rhetoric against foreigners and immigrants.

Meanwhile, the left chimes in and complains about the EU’s anti-austerity mindset and inherent neoliberalism.

Both camps unite in pitting democracy in Britain against “un-democracy” in the EU.

What is badly missing is a reality check. In the interconnected world of the 21st century, national sovereignty is a 19th century fairy tale.

No single issue that makes the headlines these days – be it the influx of refugees, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the tensions with Russia, the rise of China as a global power, or the struggle against human-made climate change – can be addressed in a national reference frame.

Fight within the framework

No single nation can do anything about any of these challenges, yet they affect every single nation. There is no sovereignty unless you pool your resources and your political as well as economic clout.

The transnational association we call the European Union is the instrument to reassure sovereignty among its member nations on the basis of equals.

If you want sovereignty, you have to fight for it within the framework provided by the EU. Outside, it is good-bye and good riddance.

If the majority of the British people want a different economic policy, no problem. But address those complaints and demands for changes to Downing Street, not the Rue de la Loi in Brussels.

Blaming Brussels for the economic failures of one’s national government is just lazy populism.

Being a longstanding “Anglophile” myself, I honestly hope that common sense, this great British invention, will prevail in the coming months leading to the referendum date.

And that Britain decides to remain a strong part of the greatest European peace project of all times.

Takeaways

EU holds 16% of global trade – higher than 14% share held by China and 10% for the United States.

Why would the British leave EU when everything they wanted is being handed to them on a platter?

In the interconnected world of the 21st century, national sovereignty is a 19th century fairy tale.

Blaming Brussels for the economic failures of one’s national government is just lazy populism.