Even though the UK government and the Brussels establishment continue to deny it, the UK’s relationship with the EU is undergoing a fundamental change; the drive for EU integration is totally at odds with practical realities and the aspirations of the British people.
The government and electorates of different countries clearly have very different views of the European Union. A recent set of polls by YouGov-Cambridge [www.yougov.polis.cam.ac.uk/?p=1935] demonstrated just how different British voters feel about the EU compared to the other EU nations. Support for further integration in other countries is still high. 63 per cent of Italians, nearly 40 per cent of French and over a third of Germans support turning the EU into a fully integrated ‘United States of Europe.’ In France, Germany and Italy, more than twice as many people support further EU integration than oppose it. Support is high in France,Germany and Italy for a directly elected EU president, for a single EU military and for an EU authority to decide when EU nations should take military action – ideas that were very unpopular in the UK.
The contrast with the findings in the UK could not be more stark. 60 per cent of people want a national referendum to decide on Britain’s relationship with the EU. 60 per cent want ‘a looser relationship with the EU’ or ‘to leave altogether’. A majority of UK voters strongly oppose European control in almost all policy-areas. Only 14 per cent want more integration with Europe. Only 13 per cent want to ‘keep things as they are with Britain as a full EU member’. Even fewer Britons (11 per cent) think that their voice counts in the EU, and a mere 6 per cent think EU membership provides a ‘better quality of life’. Britain also has the opposite attitudes from mainland Europe in its concern over defence and national security, with few people favouring cuts in public spending in this area.
Any UK government seeking wide support for its EU policy would be wise to heed these findings. Certainly, many MPs at Westminster feel the same way and this was reflected in the ‘surprise’ UK veto of the proposed EU fiscal union treaty in December 2011. The brief burst of popularity enjoyed by the government in the aftermath evaporated, as it became clear that David Cameron had no intention of following the logic of his veto with demands for a different treaty relationship with our EU partners. He made no attempt to stop other countries moving ahead with fiscal integration anyway. Nevertheless, this was a significant moment in the UK’s relationship, as this was the first time a British Government had blocked an EU treaty.
In doing so, the Prime Minister broke with the approach of successive governments, advised by officials at the FCO to always avoid the risk of the UK facing ‘isolation’ in the EU. In this instance, the threat of ‘isolation’ was not enough to deter the Prime Minister from refusing to agree this treaty unless British demands for protection for financial services were met. In fact, the polls seemed to respond positively to accusations of unreasonable defiance and isolation.
So the treaty relationship may be the same, but the UK’s political relationship with the EU is undergoing a seismic shift, about which most in Whitehall and in Brussels are in denial. The Treaty on Stability Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (SGC Treaty) also represents a fundamental change in the character of the EU. Never before has a subset of member states effectively ignored a national veto and proceeded with a non-EU treaty which trespasses upon the exclusive competences delegated by the member states to the EU. The House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee’s report on the new treaty says that this raises a fundamental question about the application of the rule of law within the EU. The SCG Treaty would have been an EU treaty but for the veto. However, the EU institutions and the governments of the 25 Member States who have signed the Treaty have embarked on a dangerous precedent in seeking to attain their political objectives irrespective of the rule of law in the EU.
The Committees report notes that the Government has made clear that it has serious reservations about the legality of what has been done, but concludes that the question of what it intends to do remains ‘unsatisfactorily unresolved.’ In an unprecedented letter sent from Sir John Cunliffe, the UK Ambassador to the EU, to the Secretary-General of the Council on 22 February, it appears that the Government does not want to stand in the way of 25 States reinforcing the eurozone, but it sees the use of the institutions outside the EU Treaties, without the consent of all 27 Member States, as unlawful, irrespective of the consequences to and the lack of concessions for the UK and the current failure to take the issue of legality further.
What is notable is that not just the eurozone countries, but most of the EU countries not in the eurozone, were willing to sign this fiscal compact treaty. Even the Czech Republic, the only other EU country not to sign this treaty, has said it may opt in later.
The Government has made its stance ambiguous by ‘reserving its position’, saying it will only challenge the legality of the new treaty if British interests are threatened. This paralysis is the product of the impasse on EU matters within the coalition (the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister favoured signing the treaty), but it cannot mask the fact that the UK is now in transition to a fundamentally different relationship with our EU partners.
The seeds of this divergence were sewn by the UK opt-out from the euro which we agreed at the Treaty of Maastricht. Only the UK has a permanent opt-out from joining the euro. In contrast, other EU members which are not in the euro are technically expected to join at a later date – however unlikely this may now be. We have now reached the point where the other EU members are going in a different direction without the UK.
The YouGov-Cambridge poll suggests that even if the euro were to break up, the fundamental difference in attitudes between UK voters and the rest of the EU will continue to drive the UK and the rest of the EU in different directions. This also reflects the economic and security interests of the UK, which is naturally looking for export growth outside the EU’s failing economy to growing markets in the Americas and the East, and whose most important ally is the US. Euro break-up would not alter these facts. Nor would it alter the legal dynamic which the EU treaties have established. These treaties would remain in force including the BGC Treaty if it has been ratified and the EU institutions would continue to act as their guardian. Experience suggests that a new EU crisis would lead to a renewal of determination amongst EU institutions and the core member states to pursue EU integration. An alternative policy for France and Germany in particular remains unthinkable. The only question is whether a future UK government will actively determine how the new UK-EU relationship develops or whether UK policy continues to allow the issue to drift.