Britain and the 'Quit Europe' Tide

By Hastings, Max | International New York Times, November 27, 2013 | Go to article overview

Britain and the 'Quit Europe' Tide


Hastings, Max, International New York Times


Britain's electorate won't choose to stay in the Union unless a less-Europe option is proposed.

Among the headlines here last weekend was one that trumpeted: "Cameron to Defy EU on Migrants." This suggested that the prime minister intends to make it much harder for Romanians and Bulgarians to claim British welfare benefits. Such an initiative would run contrary to E.U. law and assuredly meet a challenge in the European Court, which would probably rule against the British government.

But a political imperative presses upon Prime Minister David Cameron. With just 18 months before a general election, he faces a threat of mass defections from his own Conservatives to the fringe U.K. Independence Party, committed to contrive Britain's departure from the European Union. To frustrate UKIP -- Britain's Tea Party -- the Tories must show voters that the coalition government in which they are dominant partners can contest perceived E.U. intrusion on British rights, national interests and discretionary powers.

Most of the business community considers that quitting European Union would be an economic disaster. UKIP and the Tory right insist that easy trading arrangements would remain available outside the Union because Britain is a big market for European goods. But diplomats and bankers argue that if Britain goes it alone the other member states would concede it no favors. Most single market trading arrangements would survive, but Britain would lose its voice in future rules affecting exports.

Scarcely any individual or organization in Britain today, however, is making the pro-Europe case with conviction. Ministers say as little as possible about it, to avoid fueling isolationist hysteria, and thus the E.U.'s critics shoot at an open goal. Membership has never been less popular. It is no great exaggeration to say that many British people, especially the elderly, believe that breaking with Brussels would deliver instant improvements in the weather and the England football team.

Ten months ago, Mr. Cameron made a speech in which he declared his belief that while E.U. membership is positive for Britain it has shortcomings: gratuitous bureaucratic and regulatory intervention by Brussels in matters properly addressed by the British Parliament; an extravagant welfare culture; a chasm between many E.U. policies and the wishes of member peoples, not least in the matter of unrestricted internal immigration.

Mr. Cameron asserted that the institution must become much more flexible to accommodate the differing aspirations as well as the social and economic circumstances of its 28 members. He acknowledged the E.U.'s unpopularity among his compatriots, saying, "Public disillusionment with the E.U. is at an all-time high" and people "wonder what the point of it all is." The speech was widely applauded as a proclamation of British grievances. Mr. Cameron concluded by declaring that, while his country should remain in the Union, it should not do so on any terms; there must be a renegotiation.

Since then, the British government has strived to forge alliances to further this objective. The Germans, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, are most anxious for the British to stay -- and recognize the danger that it will go. They also share British frustrations about the manner in which the European Commission conducts its affairs, apparently heedless of cost to richer member states. But there are few signs that the big E.U. nations are anywhere near ready to support Mr. …

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