The debt crisis in Europe is forcing the British to once again
choose: the continent or the open sea?
The fiercely independent British have gone both ways over the
centuries, openly spurning, even warring against, the continentals
while expanding their reach across the oceans. In recent history,
though, theyve been more in than out as members of the European
Union for nearly 40 years, even if they still use the pound instead
of the euro currency.
It is the preservation of the euro that is now prompting the
British question about relations with the rest of Europe. With the
Euro-skeptics reigning over the public discourse in Britain and
three crucial meetings of EU heads of state coming before Christmas
each summit deciding on steps toward further European integration
British Prime Minister David Cameron is now publicly hinting at a
referendum on EU membership. Changes to the EUs structure require
fresh consent from the British people, the prime minister recently
said, though he prefers a referendum on Britain's role in the EU,
rather than an in-out vote.
It seems appropriate to think through the unthinkable: What if
Britain actually left the EU?
These days, its easier than ever to understand the Euro-
skeptics. To them, the 17 members of the euro zone are pushing an
agenda that Britain never signed on to: Centralize power and allow
EU headquarters in Brussels to sap sovereignty from London. The
skeptics argue that Britain would not be leaving the European Union;
the European Union is leaving Britain.
In 1973, the United Kingdom signed up for the EU in order to
become part of a single economic market. Now, ber-integrationists
such as Germany, while delaying completion of the single market,
push for all sorts of pooled power that proud English sovereignists
believe they must resist. Its a fundamental conflict of visions
between the German chancellor and the British prime minister: Angela
Merkel wants more Europe, Mr. Cameron wants less.
Even the Euro-skeptics show some understanding for Ms. Merkel,
though. David Osborne, finance minister, identifies the remorseless
logic of an ill-conceived currency zone without fiscal coordination
as the key driver. Its integrate or perish for the euro zone. This
dictate makes it increasingly hard for the euro zone to hit the
brake while the Brits mull further integration, even while it is
increasingly hard for Britain to stay halfway in. As the euro zone
builds up institutions to govern its currency and rein in debt,
Britain will be ever more marginalized.
Some already envision a time when Britain will be freed from the
shackles of European enslavement. The country, they assume, will
celebrate its newfound liberty and go global alone. Yes, they admit,
Britain will be less influential in Europe, but not in the world. No
longer held back by the greying, over-regulated, sclerotic, and
irrelevant continent, Britain could go its merry way, happily
trading with India, China, Brazil, and the other giants of tomorrow.
In the most unassuming version of a new British strategy (as
discussed within Camerons Conservative Party) the country would
secure a free trade agreement with the EU and turn itself into a
bigger Switzerland with nukes, as one approving Conservative member
of Parliament put it. …