On June 23, the British will decide whether to remain in or leave the European Union. According to opinion polls, it will be a close contest. Prime Minister David Cameron’s political failure is to blame for the membership referendum, which he fueled for internal political reasons. But it’s also the culmination of a decades-long development that reveals Britain’s ambivalent relationship with Continental Europe.
This sentence remains visionary to this day: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” It is from a speech delivered 70 years ago this August by Winston Churchill, who was the British opposition leader at the time. For Mr. Churchill, the United States of Europe was a logical consequence of the world wars. Although in his speech he helped establish the idea of a united Europe, at the same time he revealed Britain’s special view of itself.
For the United States of Europe primarily was meant to bring France and Germany together. Churchill saw Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union in the role of friend and challenger. “We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations,” he said.
The UK Independence Party, France’s National Front, the Freedom Party of Austria and the Dutch Party for Freedom are only a few examples of euro-haters, Europe despisers and right-wing populists.
So it is hardly any wonder that it took until 1973 before the British joined the European Economic Community. Shortly after that, the relationship became complicated. Later, British leader Margaret Thatcher made clear that, “What we are asking is for a very large amount of our own money back.”
The rebate for the United Kingdom was born and, with it, the start of a series of special wishes and regulations.
The debate over the possible exit of Britain from the European Union, or “Brexit,” seems to be consistent with this. No euro, no Maastricht social protocol, no Schengen. Britain had and frequently has its foot on the brakes when it comes to steps toward further European integration.
At the same time, the British must be given credit, despite many an eccentricity, for having always advocated subsidiarity, the market economy and private autonomy. Without them, the balance would shift.
U.S. President Barack Obama had some clear words to say in the debate. He wrote in a guest book while visiting the U.K., “As your friend, let me say that the E.U. makes Britain even greater.” He noted that when it comes to creating jobs, trade and economic growth, the United Kingdom has benefited from its membership of the European Union.
On the other hand, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the British Exchequer (or finance minister) are warning unanimously that a Brexit would cause great damage. The IMF is already seeing uncertainty among investors and fears severe regional and global damage. The OECD has come to the conclusion that, by 2020, a Brexit could cost each individual Brit a month’s wages. The exchequer is talking about every household losing £4,300 (about $6,265) annually in the long term.
In contrast, E.U. opponents and euroskeptics have sought to exploit the issue of refugees. The refugee crisis, as the second greatest crisis test of European unity after Greece, has brought national self-interests to the fore.
Schengen was suspended, and border controls returned within Europe. Mr. Cameron fought in Brussels for special rules for Britain. And for staying in the European Union, he wrote on Twitter after the E.U. summit, “I have negotiated a deal to give the U.K. special status in the E.U.”
Whether the once-thought-banished spirit of nationalism will return to the bottle is questionable. It has spread throughout Europe too strongly and eaten its way into the parliaments — even Europe’s. The UK Independence Party, France’s National Front, the Freedom Party of Austria and the Dutch Party for Freedom are only a few examples of euro-haters, Europe despisers and right-wing populists. Nationalism has even found new supporters and protagonists in Germany . . .
So the Brexit referendum can’t be blamed only on Mr. Cameron and Britain’s ambivalent relationship with Europe, it is a symptom of a deep and severe European crisis. We need to recognize that the idea of liberty and a united Europe has been put onto the defensive.
But what would be the alternative to Europe? Walling-off into nation states, border barriers, customs and supposedly-vanquished rivalries? Economic and geo-strategic insignificance in the world? In a phase of uncertainty about Europe, the greatest danger to peace, liberty and prosperity isn’t being posed by the euro crisis or the refugee crisis.
The greatest danger would be the disintegration of Europe. That is why Europe must regain its capacity to act. For the validity of the words of German politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher remain unchanged: “Europe is our future, we have no other.”
Consequently we should see Europe’s crisis as an opportunity for a fresh start. Even if it comes to a Brexit! For many of the thrusts for change coming out of London are helpful. The British are right when they say, “Not everything is running well.” True! We must make Europe better — preferably together with Britain.
First of all: The division of the areas of responsibility between Europe and the member states needs to be partly adjusted. Only a few are able to figure out everything the European Union wants to prescribe. Instead we need a Europe for the big things, not for every detail. More Europe would be necessary in things like the digital domestic market or in asylum policies.
Second: We need a strong Europe for the huge challenges of our times. Particularly now, a revitalization of European foreign policy would be especially valuable. A prerequisite is that we find quicker and more flexible decision-making routes in our common foreign and security policies. In the long run, we want to develop a joint European army out of a Europe with 28 national armed forces and 2 million military men and women.
Third: We also need a strong Europe for a strict monetary policy that dispenses with reciprocal budgetary aid and pooling of debts. Equally needed is a deeper cooperation for a secure, affordable and climate-friendly energy supply.
The energy transition can succeed only as a joint European project. We in Germany in particular cannot continue to allow our ability to compete internationally to be put at risk by pushing forward climate protection on our own.
Fourth: We want a Europe that keeps out of issues for which it has no jurisdiction. Subsidiarity has taken a particular beating in recent decades. We need a strong organ that preserves the competencies of the member states. In addition, we could lower the hurdle for subsidiarity and establish a European regulatory control council to review legal norms.
Fifth: In the future social policy must also remain the responsibility of the member states. The European Union has been continually expanding its activities here, although it’s not at all within its jurisdiction under the treaty. In this respect, the British initiative is correct that the right to freedom of movement cannot be confused with an overall right to social benefits.
Sixth: There is more room for differing rates of speeds in the Europe of the 28 member states. For that reason, there must be more options for differing extents of further integration. Member states that don’t want to participate, or only participate more slowly in the further development of the European Union, should not slow down the others.
Where there is no agreement on a common approach, a Europe with varying rates of speed of political progress ensures temporal flexibility and special consideration. The political practice of international side agreements by some member states must be kept to a minimum in this connection. Rather, the job would be to encourage the member states to use the instrument of increased cooperation wherever appropriate.
There is much to do in Europe. But it is worth continuing to press ahead with the European unification process — by making Europe better. One would like to shout out the words of the late Guido Westerwelle, the former FDP leader, to the British: “Europe comes at a price. But above all it has a great value.”
It’s the job of each and every one of us to continue to increase this value. For Britain is not yet lost!
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