Among the numerous invisible elephants that haunt the seats of government of 27 of the 28 EU member-States is the particularly ghostly issue of the British question. The situation, however, is very real. Twenty-seven States have become hostage to one man, David Cameron, who is himself the hostage of another - Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
The referendum on a possible exit of Britain from the EU (1), promised for 2017 by the leader of the Conservative party, whether it finally happens or not, isn't a political deadline just for the British but for all Europeans. Does the EU leadership have nothing to say? Do they not have anything to offer with which they could hoist the Tory leader out of the trap he has got himself into? Under the overused pretext that talking about it would make things worse, or in the forlorn hope that a return of the Labour party to 10 Downing Street would magically sweep away the growing hostility towards the EU, we have complete radio silence.
Let's not be mistaken. These anti-EU feelings are, above all, as in many other European countries, a British version of a reactionary (2) response to the enormous changes which go hand-in-hand with "the irreversible creolisation" (3) of the world.
"Wait and see" is not an option
Almost every day brings us new signs of anti-EU feeling. Instead of withdrawing into denial, or, off the record, taking the easy stance of "good riddance", shouldn't the "continentals" (as we are known) think about what the EU would look like without Britain and try to understand how to prevent what would be irreparable damage, or better still, how to transform this unilateral British demand into an opportunity for all of Europe, Britain included.
Let time do its work
Today, if the opinion polls are to be believed, only 26% of British voters consider the EU to be "a good thing" overall and 42% consider it to be "a bad thing" (4). In contrast, 41% of Britons between 18 and 24 would not wish to leave the EU and support "Britain's long-lasting membership"(5). If these statistics are correct and if we deem Britain's membership to be essential, then we must look to the future and save time - probably 20 years, until the new generations are able to turn the tables their advantage.
Also, if we consider that the current attitude of the British Government is hindering all advances in areas of vital importance for the future of the EU, and that it is a convenient excuse for their own inertia, a welcome move would be to construct an institutional framework which would keep the British happy whilst allowing those who wish to progress to do so without being held back.
An EU based on four freedoms
Let us consider what the majority of the British want today - an EU that enables free movement and free trade. Let us make the EU a union of four freedoms of movement - of people, goods, services and capital (6).
So, for example, let's split up the Common Agricultural Policy into a section of basic rules (sanitary, veterinary and environmental standards, pesticide use, animal well-being, etc.) that would be common to all member countries, and another section comprising all measures for agriculture, which would only be applicable to the countries of "little" Europe. Let's split the EU budget into two parts - a first section concerning all member countries and a second for those that have opted for more integration. The cherry on the cake would be that this financial overhaul would finally allow the resolution of the thorny issue of the "British rebate".
The single market as a priority
It goes without saying that this double level of integration could bring about inconsistencies for both individuals and businesses. Substantial social standards would remain applicable in all countries.
Establishing different rules for British workers and those from other EU countries, as certain British politicians want, would be out of the question, as much in the future as it is today. (7)
Two speeds, but a single institutional framework
If "the unity of the EU (...) is essential to protect everyone's prosperity" and "an overhaul should keep in mind the necessity of being a coherent bloc" (8) it is indispensable to construct an institutional framework allowing a harmonious cohabitation of all member-States, for those who would have opted for a limited level of integration, like the British, as well as for those who would have chosen a closer union.
As such, all countries should have the right to take part in all debates and to defend their own positions, including with the use of amendments. Only the decision would be the responsibility of the representatives of the countries participating in the policy in question. The political agenda of the European Parliament and Council as well as the voting systems (9) should be adjusted according to these two levels of integration. A reorganization of the treaties would recognize this two-speed institutional framework.
An opportunity for enlargement to include Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and Moldova
A new institutional framework of this type would also allow the question of Turkey joining the EU to be tackled in a more objective and responsible manner. For Turkish intellectuals such as Cengiz Aktar or Ahmet Insel, the prospect of Turkey joining a wider EU would not be seen negatively. On the contrary, it would stimulate a rapid return to the virtuous process of reforms that the then real prospect had brought about during the 1990s. Moreover, this new institutional order would allow more problematic issues to be tackled such as Ukraine in particular, weakened internally by a predatory political class and externally, by the neo-imperialist and authoritarian ambitions of Vladimir Putin. The cases of Georgia and Moldova could also be dealt with (10). For these countries, even more than for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU during the 2000s, a clear prospect of joining a widened Union would constitute a tremendous incentive (due to the obligation to respect the criteria of Copenhagen) (11) to create the right conditions for the rule of law and democracy to take root.
"Don't even think about it!" "An EU with 38 members is impossible. It would seal its fate, it would be the end of the European dream, the ruination of 60 years of efforts..." But what if this "truth" was merely a tall story? What if those primarily responsible for the deadlocks which punctuate the history of European construction were not to be found amongst the "new" members but amongst the veterans of EU construction?
For a democratic appropriation of Europe
The reality is that as long as there are efficient democratic decision-making structures, European construction will stay on track. Two levels of integration would not necessarily mean two levels of democracy. In "wider" Europe, just as in "little" Europe, the process by which the parliament and the council make decisions together would be generalized.
Certainly, this functional separation would not solve everything. Most importantly, it would not deal with the lack of democratic involvement of all European citizens in their European Union. But solutions can be found in this area too. The direct election of the President of the European Commission would unequivocally guarantee the institutional unity of the Union and would give all European citizens the possibility of feeling involved in the democratic choice of who will preside over our common destiny.
(1) The question asked could be structured as such: "Do you think that the UK should be a member of the EU?"
(2) The word "reactionary" is not used here in a derogatory sense but describes a political agenda advocating an impossible return to a previous situation, whether real or imagined
(3) Edouard Glissant
(4) "In or out? Britain's future in Europe." Opinium Research for Lansons Public Affairs and Cambre Associates in association with City of London Corporation, 3 December 2013
(5) "Only 32% of young people want to leave the EU", Young people "want UK to stay in Europe", Nigel Morris, The Independent, 15 December 2013
(6) "Free movement is looked upon positively by the British, as is the free market", Opinium Research for Lansons Public Affairs and Cambre Associates in association with City of London Corporation, 3 December 2013
(7) "Britain - David Cameron shaken by the eurosceptics", LeMonde.fr, 12 January 2014, in which we learn that Iain Duncan Smith, the Minister for Work and Pensions, considers that EU immigrants should show that they are committed to the country (the UK)
(8) De la démocratie en Europe, Sylvie Goulard, Mario Monti, Ed. Flammarion, 2012, p. 195
(9) All Council decisions are made by double majority (majority of States and majority of citizens)
(10) Due to the openly authoritarian characteristics of the regimes in place in Azerbaijan and Belarus and due to strategic decisions made by Armenia, such a scenario is not possible for these countries
(11) The criteria of Copenhagen include the existence of "stable institutions guaranteeing the rule of law, democracy, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities", "a viable market economy as well as the capability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union" and "the ability to fulfil EU membership obligations, mainly by complying with the conditions of the political, economic and monetary union". Wikipedia