Friday 3 June 2016

Diminished: The EU without the UK

Questions from Simon W on Facebook:

I'd also be interested in your thoughts on (a) whether it would be better for the EU (by which I really mean the other countries in the EU not the institution itself) for the UK for remain part of it, and (b) whether it would be better for the 'rest of the world' for the UK to remain part of the EU. 
Hearing David Miliband on the radio this morning arguing that for the UK to leave the EU would greatly reduce the UK's political influence in the world raised the question in my mind whether this might be a good thing. I have questions but no answers. 

Short answer: (a) Yes, (b) Yes, to the extent it matters.

The UK has long had distinct strengths which serve it well: Openness to trade, people and ideas from overseas; a tradition of clean government and the rule of law; involvement in peacekeeping, aid and development for the poorest parts of the world; achievement in science and innovation. It also has larger and more capable armed forces than any other EU country besides France. At the moment, it brings these strengths to the EU. It is, on the whole, a voice within the EU for greater openness and less regulation. As noted by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer:

Britain is one of only two EU states – the other being France – with a fully global perspective. Britain with France established an EU defence policy that has undertaken more than 30 peace-keeping and humanitarian missions on three continents. The EU without Britain would be a shrunken player in global affairs. 
It is reasonable to forecast that a post-Britain EU would be more likely to drift in a protectionist direction. It would be likelier to become more closed and parochial. It would certainly be a weaker actor on the world stage and on its own continent, a prospect that would delight the Kremlin, not least because it would create distance between Europe and the United States.

The UK does not have all the answers. Sometimes it is outvoted, as is inevitable in a union made up of 28 member states. Sometimes the free-market option is not the best one; but at the very least, it is valuable to widen the debate, and force the proponents of greater regulation or protectionism to justify their case. More often than not, the UK pushes the EU in a positive direction. To give a large and important example, the UK was a decisive voice in favour of eastward expansion; this helped bind former Communist countries into free trade, prosperity, and democratic values, while ensuring the EU was simply too large and diverse to become a tightly integrated unit.

An EU without the UK would be more dominated by Germany; less interested in the outside world; and more preoccupied than ever with the problems of managing the euro. From the UK perspective, such an EU would also be a monolith. At the moment, the UK can find allies and cut deals among its fellow EU members. It can persuade and negotiate with friendly governments to get its way. This is not an advantage to be cast aside lightly.

If the UK left the EU, the possibility of divide and rule would be gone; instead of being one of 28 voices in the negotiation room, it would just be the UK and a representative of the EU. The latter would have all the bargaining power of an organisation with more than five times the GDP of the UK. Moreover, the UK needs the EU more than the other way around; 45% of UK exports go to the rest of the EU, and only about 16% in the other direction.

The influence of the UK on this new, diminished, insular European Union would be comparable to its power over the USA or China: Very small.

This brings us to the consequences for the rest of the world. Leaders of countries like the USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, or India would like to see the EU play an active, positive role in world affairs. They regard the UK as a friend and ally who helps push the EU in this direction; accordingly, a UK exit would cause them some regret. Furthermore, Brexit would bring economic uncertainty, which is bad for business.

These same leaders have urgent concerns closer to home. If Brexit occurs, they would hope to ride out the economic and political consequences, and get on with their own affairs. The material effect on the countries I mentioned above is likely to be minor. But to the extent it matters, I think Brexit would be a bad thing for the wider world.

All of these consequences would redound upon the UK. The effects of having to deal with a diminished EU would be immediate and close to home. The more general reduction of the EU's global role, and the UK's influence, would be less obvious but nonetheless real. I cannot see any of this working to the UK's benefit.

There's an interesting contrast between Simon's final question, as to whether reduction in British influence might be a good thing, and David Miliband's blithe assumption that of course more influence is better. In this we may fairly take Miliband as representative of the British governing classes. Wallis Simpson said you can never be too rich or too thin; politicians and diplomats believe you can never be too powerful. The whole point of having influence is that it allows you to shape events so they are more to your liking.

Nothing comes for free, of course. The Brexit campaign would argue that the UK's influence within the EU is not so great as Miliband and his ilk would claim, and costs too much in terms of money and lost freedom of action.

For the last five hundred years or so, British policy (and previously, English policy) has been to engage with continental Europe, and try to shape it in a way which benefits British interests. In particular, it has tried to maintain a balance of power, and prevent any one government from having too much influence. The Brexit campaign likes to talk about tradition; in this instance, they want to discard a tradition of diplomacy older than Britain itself, pack up and leave Brussels, and let Germany dominate EU decision-making.

This is very much a counsel of despair. It says the European Union is too complicated and difficult for the UK to bother with. It implies other EU members are too alien in their values for the UK to work with constructively. It sells short the UK's very real and distinctive strengths.

I do not agree with the Brexit case. I think British influence within the EU is a significant and positive force, and both the UK and EU would be poorer without it.

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