Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Britain's Influence in the EU

Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Britain's Influence in the EU

Article excerpt

How much influence does the UK have in Europe? How has this changed? We argue that the UK has tended to view its relationship with the EU in transactional terms, and that this has led to a dominant understanding framed in terms of 'costs' and 'benefits.' However, thinking more broadly gives a more nuanced picture of British influence. Thus, we approach this question from two directions: examining the historical record of the UK's role in the development of the EU and the single market; and looking at the ways in which British politicians and officials exert influence in the current political structure. We argue that although the UK has generally had a good track record of success, this has often been threatened by domestic political difficulties--as the current referendum debate shows.

Keywords: Brexit; UK-EU relations; European institutions; Single Market; British influence

JEL Classifications: F4; P16; 052


A frequent refrain of those supporting British exit from the EU is that the UK wields little or no influence within it. For example, Boris Johnson--a prominent campaigner for exit--wrote in The Telegraph that "we [are] told that whatever the democratic deficiencies, we would be better off remaining in because of the 'influence' we have. This is less and less persuasive to me". (1) Another, Matthew Elliott, wrote that the UK's influence was "in decline", pointing to the defeat in three landmark cases during 2014: on the bonus cap, the ban on short-selling, and on the financial transaction tax. (2) Given London's inability to shape the EU agenda, so the argument goes, exit would prevent the continued imposition of laws opposed by British governments by 'Brussels'.

This emphasis on Britain's powerlessness is understandable. It is a refrain that chimes well with public understandings of Britain's place and role in the Union. Political leaders have never invested much effort in explaining the nature of the EU, nor of Britain's place within it. A tendency to be critical of 'Brussels' and to blame it for unpopular decisions has laid the groundwork for a sense of victimhood that has pervaded public and political discourse on the Union.

But 'influence' is a slippery concept and not one that is easy to measure, particularly when dealing with the EU. There are different kinds of influence, ranging from formal to informal, negative to positive. Moreover, in the context of the EU, any such appraisal must be placed in the context of different issues, policy types, and an overall approach to European integration. In some policy areas, the quest for influence might best be pursued via the prevention of EU action. Similarly, in the area of negative integration, the absence of a European regulatory framework might be taken as evidence of success for those in favour of a more liberal, deregulatory approach to market making. Furthermore, any definition of success must be sensitive to the different approaches adopted by member states towards the EU. For those for whom European integration is a largely instrumentalist affair, immediate, tangible, politically sellable benefits are crucial. Those who see European integration as intrinsically valuable in its own right, in contrast, are less worried about 'parading the spoils' (Kassim and Peters, 2001).

Britain, of course, is a specific, and, some might say, unique member state--once memorably described as an "awkward partner" (George, 1998). Traditionally in favour of a deregulatory approach to market making, it has also been an opponent of institution building and further moves towards political integration. Thus, particularly when thinking about legislation affecting the single market, the absence of EU legislation might be seen as more a triumph for British diplomacy than a raft of new regulation. Moreover, unlike other member states, all of which, to some degree or another, see European integration in part at least as a political undertaking (whether that be about peace building, the entrenchment of democracy, or joining a western club offering protection against domination by Russia) the British have also always tended to define 'success' within the EU in purely transactional, cost-benefit terms. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.