The United Kingdom and the European Union: In or out?

Julie Bouffety, translated by Perrine Berthier
26 Juin 2013

To be or not to be a member of the European Union? That is the question that could be asked to British citizens if the conservative party of Prime Minister David Cameron is re-elected in 2015. Let’s take a look at the facts.

The United Kingdom and the European Union: In or out?
In January 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron announced to the British population and to the rest of the world that he promises a referendum in 2017 on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union if the party is re-elected in the 2015 general election. The importance of UKIP (UK Independence Party) is being more and more felt across the Channel. At first sight, against such a referendum, the Labour Party and the Liberal-Democrat Party would be more disposed to promise one as well, given the importance of this debate in the election campaign.

A long story of skepticism

Forty years after joining the European Union, Great Britain would be the first country to try to get out of it. After a double refusal in 1961 then in 1967 by Charles De Gaulle, and against the opinion of the majority of the British population, the country joined the Union in 1973. It was mainly to save the kingdom from the financial and social crisis it was suffering from for years.
The first membership referendum took place in 1975 while the opposition Labour party was coming to power.  Quite unexpectedly, 67% of voters decided that the United Kingdom had to stay in the Union. However, euro skepticism was still very present across the country. This feeling reached its peak in the Thatcher years (often summed up by the famous quote “I want my money back”, said in 1979 about the reduction of the British share for the Common Agricultural Policy) then again under John Major.
Despite the Labour Party’s rise to power in 1997, mentalities and policies carried out in regards to Europe only changed a little. The British population, along with several elected representatives, refused first the unique currency, then the Schengen agreement (amongst other agreements with the member-countries), staying away from major European projects. This opposition force, in a context of many discounts and privileges granted by Europe to the British, makes relations between the Union and the United Kingdom complex today.

David Cameron’s proposals

During the speech he held at the beginning of the year, David Cameron evoked the symptoms of Europe’s sickness when talking about the place of the United Kingdom in the European Union. The “challenges” are “the Eurozone”, thecrisis of European competitiveness”, and” a gap between the EU and its citizens”. He does not necessarily appear as a member of the independent movement, but seems rather to try to renegotiate and redirect the Union politics to adapt to the current context, before holding a referendum. Indeed, Europe represents great political-economic interests for London, in particular through the common market. David Cameron suggests some food for thought to examine.
First of all, to improve competitiveness, the Prime Minister suggests modernising the economy (service, energy and new technologies sectors), to “release the SME [small and medium enterprise]” from the heavy European regulations and to sign commercial agreements with big powers such as the United States, Japan and India.
He then highlights the need of certain flexibility in Europe: reduce the too highly judged cost of European institutions and rapidly suppress the programs that do not work. The Prime Minister also seems to think that a “Common Market Council” would be suitable. He then points out the need to accept the differences between each country of the Union: “17 members are part of the Eurozone. 10 are not. 26 European countries are members of Schengen (…) EU countries – Britain and Ireland – have retained their border controls.  Some members, like Britain and France, are ready, willing and able to take action in Libya or Mali. Others are uncomfortable with the use of military force,” he declared. “[T]hose who want to go further, faster, to do so, without being held back by the others”. In the same way, he underlines the importance of national parliaments.
Finally, his justice principle states that problems and decisions of the Eurozone should not have negative impacts on the other Union member countries. 

Mixed reactions

Of course, the Prime Minister’s speech was fervently expected. From the inside, opinions were very mixed. The UKIP, headed by Nigel Farage, as well as the Conservative Party congratulated the Prime Minister for his decision and his commitment to the British population. It is true that the speech has been intelligently written to please the euro-skeptical and businesses, but also to reassure the other national citizens and the foreign powers. However, it did not seem to be enough: the Labour party and the Liberal-democrat party reacted quite differently from the UKIP and the Conservative Party.
Nick Clegg, from the Liberal-democrat party, declared that  years and years of uncertainty because of a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs”. David Milliband and his Labour Party have vividly criticized the Prime Minister’s decision declaring that they “don't want an in/out referendum » such as the one suggested by David Cameron”. Tony Blair compared the Prime Minister’s action to holding a gun to his own head, by quoting an American western movie: “if you don’t do what I want, I’ll blow my brains out”. He added that he hopes none of the 26 [other EU member states] doesn't just say: 'OK, go ahead.'" According to the Labour party, threatening the Union with a referendum and a potential exit is not the best way to obtain what Great Britain wishes. “But we have never said never” added Deputy Douglas Alexander in The Times. Indeed, given the importance of the debate over the last few months, even years in Great Britain, the two parties could follow David Cameron’s steps to stay on the right side of the British public opinion during the general election of 2015.
From the point of view of businesses, opinions have also been divided. Some welcomed the reforms creating more competitiveness with open arms, nevertheless a good number of companies joined Nick Clegg, like Hugo Dixon, when he said in the Business section of the International Herald Tribune that “uncertainty is bad for business”. The world economic powers like the United States, China, Brazil or India share this opinion, fearing that a Brexit (British exit) would seriously interfere in their business and rejecting the uncertainty created by a possible British referendum in several years.
As for the Union member countries, no need to say that the speech and the intentions of David Cameron have been little appreciated. In regards to France, Laurent Fabius, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared: “If Great Britain decides to leave Europe, we will roll out the red carpet for [them]”. Europe is not to be tailor-made”. Only Angela Merkel is “willing to discuss British wishes”.
The United Kingdom does not seem to know which way to look: towards Europe or towards the United States and the other worldwide powers? The General election of 2015 could already serve as a referendum and the electoral campaigns will keep us informed about the intentions of our dear neighbors.