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Analysis
European map will change again

European map will change again

UK's 'special status' best option available today

by Reginald Dale in Washington

Wed 22 Jun 2016

It is ironic so many people favour ‘Brexit’ just when Britain has achieved the most advantageous relationship with its European Union partners since European integration began. For the past 60 years, post-imperial Britain has repeatedly sought its proper place in Europe without finding a role in which it is truly comfortable. The ‘special status’ that David Cameron achieved in his much-maligned ‘renegotiations’ comes closer than ever to fulfilling that long-term goal.

The fundamental historical problem is as simple as it is intractable. Since the aftermath of the second world war, most continental countries have entrusted their futures to an integrationist organisation, now called the EU, of which Britain is not a natural member. This is for profound reasons of history, politics, geography, culture, law, national character and attitudes that are often insular and exceptionalist. That truth was most pithily expressed by Winston Churchill, when he said in 1930, ‘We are with Europe, but not of it.’

Since the 1950s, Britain, always suspicious of continental idealism, has tried almost every possible option short of a full-hearted embrace of European political unity. The UK boycotted the early stages of European integration, and then formed a rival trade bloc. It subsequently changed its mind and joined the European Economic Community. But it resisted anything smacking of a ‘federal Europe’ and focused on trade, economics, and elements of foreign and security policy co-operation involving little loss of national sovereignty.

Whereas the war-ravaged continental countries hailed the EEC as a phoenix rising from the ashes, Britain saw its membership, forced by straitened economic circumstances, as a giant geopolitical comedown.

As an often recalcitrant member, Britain has been consistent in its goals. It has enthusiastically supported the single market, but equally enthusiastically worked to set the EU’s bounds wider still by admitting numerous new members – largely in the hope of ending the dream of a ‘United States of Europe’. In this it has had considerable success.Most importantly, Britain stayed out of two of the biggest components of closer union – the Schengen agreement and the euro. Furthermore, the UK has patched together a long list of opt-outs and exclusions in numerous other EU policy areas.

The great achievement of Cameron's renegotiations was to win full and final recognition that Britain will never be obliged to join in further moves to ‘ever-closer union’. It can actually have what it has so long sought – all the economic and financial advantages of membership without any commitment to more political integration.

There is one important proviso. As Churchill would have warned, the map of Europe will not stop changing. At some point, the continental drive towards closer political union will resume – probably among a hard-core of euro area countries – further reducing British influence in the wider EU.

For now, the government is right to describe Cameron’s ‘special status’ as the best of both worlds. That is the best option available today. But even if Cameron wins support for the vaunted new arrangements on offer, it would be rash to regard that as a final settlement. History doesn’t work that way.

Reginald Dale is Director of the Transatlantic Media Network, a Senior Fellow in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

This is No.99f in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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