Sunday, 5 October 2014

European and International Views of the UK-EU Relationship

Almut Möller and Tim Oliver discuss the findings of their report, “The United Kingdom and the European Union: what would a Brexit mean for the EU and other states around the world?” 
The issue of Europe seems to be rarely out of the headlines in the UK. But recent events have meant Britain has itself rarely been out of the headlines in the rest of Europe and around the world. The possibility of a British exit – a Brexit – from the EU has received increased attention. That Scotland came as close as it did to withdrawing serves as a reminder that political that political arrangements that can seem fixed – including for hundreds of years – are open to change, something the EU should not think itself immune from.

Almost all debate about a Brexit is about what it would mean for Britain. Yet a Brexit would have big – but, with a few exceptions, largely unexplored – implications for the EU and Europe’s place in the world. For that reason, and in cooperation with the IP Journal, we commissioned a series of 26 national views from across Europe and around the world on what other states think of the current UK-EU relationship and the idea of a Brexit.

The message for Britain is hardly positive. One thing is clear: Europe comes first, Britain a firm second. It is this that would frame any approach by the rest of the EU should it have to negotiate a British withdrawal. The Brexit debate in the UK focuses almost entirely on what would be the best exit deal for the UK. As the report makes clear, for the rest of the EU any deal will first and foremost be about what is best for the rest of the EU.

A number of themes emerge from the 120 page report.

1. There are varying levels of understanding of Britain’s European debate and what is driving it. No state is actively planning for a Brexit. But some are aware this may become necessary, and sooner than perhaps once thought.

2. A Brexit would be an unprecedented and damaging experience for the EU, wider Europe and its partners around the world. It is the UK, however, that many feel would be the most damaged.

3. The UK is seen to be advancing agendas that are about the UK’s national interest, not that of Europe as a whole. Using the threat of a Brexit as leverage – or blackmail as some see it – only adds to the tensions.

4. Wider concerns about the future of the EU, especially the Eurozone, frame most thinking about Britain’s behavior. It is ongoing reform of the Eurozone that is the priority. British ideas about reform of the EU have to fit with this.

5. London is seen as a bystander and at times an additional hurdle. The rest of the EU has looked for leadership from Germany and some other core Eurozone countries.

6. Britain repeatedly misunderstands the initiatives of other states to reform the EU. States such as the Netherlands and Germany speak of better enforcement of subsidiarity, not London’s aims for repatriation. A multispeed EU is considered a possibility, but not – as the UK might hope – in a pick-and-choose fashion.

7. There is increasingly less appetite in Brussels for “third ways” like Switzerland. For other EU member states, London’s proposals, while sometimes tempting in the short-term, are not seen as sustainable in the longer run as they could leave the EU weak and divided.

8. The economic impact of losing the UK is not seen simply in terms of damage to trade but in the wider change that losing a strong proponent of liberal, free-market economics could have on the EU’s political economy. States outside Europe especially worry about the EU becoming more inward looking.

9. Some states have, however, noted a growing “mercantilist” attitude in British thinking. Declining economic links also mean some traditional allies no longer look to the UK as they once did. Some are clear they would seek to exploit the economic opportunities from Britain’s marginalisaiton. Britain should not expect the EU to agree to a withdrawal deal which allows it to undercut the EU.

10. The effect on Europe’s security also raises concerns. Europe would likely be led by Germany’s “culture of restraint”. Hopes for improvements to European defence cooperation would be further dented. This would further frustrate US hopes for improved defence cooperation, whether through the EU, NATO or together. A Brexit could also create opportunities for outside powers to play on European divisions.

11. Despite these economic and security concerns, the UK’s behavior leaves other states feeling exasperated at how London only seems to offer negative leadership. Britain seems determined to lead in attacking the EU’s core freedoms such as the free movement of people.

The likelihood of relations improving anytime soon seem quite limtied given the forthcoming UK general election will in all likelihood see the issue of Europe dealt with in a way that plays to Eurosceptic feelings. A further detrioration in public relations between the UK and the rest of the EU cannot therefore be ruled out. The fallout from the Scottish referndum also means Britain will be wrestling with domestic political debates, leaving little time to think more carefully about its place in a chaging Europe.

Both Britain and the rest of the EU need to trade carefully. A Britain on the sidelines could easily move closer to a vote to withdraw. The EU could also lose patience and end up excluding Britain by integrating in ways that leave it behind. 

Almut Möller heads the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. 

Dr Tim Oliver is a Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and a non-resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington D.C.

“The United Kingdom and the European Union: what would a Brexit mean for the EU and other states around the world?” can be downloaded at


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