Europe to Britain: Our Patience is Running Out

The E.U. values Britain's membership and a "Brexit" would be felt across Europe and around the world. But Britain is not indispensable. If faced with a choice the E.U. comes first, Britain second.

The E.U. values Britain's membership and a "Brexit" would be felt across Europe and around the world. But Britain is not indispensable. If faced with a choice the E.U. comes first, Britain second.

Once again Europe has found itself transfixed by British politics. Scotland's independence referendum raised unease across Europe, whether it was Spanish worries about Catalan independence or German concerns an independent Scotland would carry on Britain's habit of demanding special E.U. opt-outs. But one concern registered everywhere: that a Scottish exit from the U.K. might make a British exit from the E.U. more likely.

Almost all debate about a Brexit is about what it would mean for Britain. Yet a Brexit would have big - but largely unexplored - implications for the E.U. and Europe's place in the world. A recent compilation of research from 26 countries from across Europe and countries such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore and Brazil has shed light on European and international thinking about where U.K.-E.U. relations are headed. The message for Britain is hardly positive.

Britain's European debate does not pass unnoticed. But understanding of the nuanes of the debate varies from country to country. While nobody is planning for a Brexit, many feel plans may become necessary because Britain's debate increaingly seems detached and closed to outside influence. Nobody is under any illusions that a Brexit would be an unprecedented and damaging experience for the E.U. and Europe. It is the U.K., however, that many feel would be the most damaged.

Views of Britain's behaviour are framed more by the wider concerns facing the E.U., especially the Eurozone. While the catchwords of the U.K.'s reform agenda for the E.U. - competitiveness, flexibility, democracy - resonate across the E.U., the real pressure for reform comes from those rescuing the Eurozone.

Countries within the Euro zone, Euro pre-in countries such as Poland and Sweden, and even Denmark with its opt-out, have focused on Germany and France for leadership. Despite its efforts, London is seen as a bystander and at times an additional hurdle.

Too often Britain misunderstands initiatives that seem to align with the U.K.'s own hopes. States such as the Netherlands and Germany seek a better enforcement of the principle of subsidiarity, not London's aims for repatriation. A multispeed E.U. is considered a possibility, but not - as the U.K. might hope - in a pick-and-choose fashion. There is increasingly less appetite in Brussels for "third ways" like Switzerland. For other E.U. member states, London's proposals, while tempting in the short-term, are not seen as sustainable in the longer run as they could leave the E.U. weak and divided.

This does not mean nobody worries about losing the U.K. Almost every state worries about losing Britain's free-market, liberal outlook. Yet some countries note a growing "mercantilist" attitude in British thinking. Some countries traditionally close to the U.K. also note a decline in economic links, and some are clear they would seek to exploit the economic opportunities that could arise from Britain's marginalisaiton. Britain can forget any hope of securing a withdrawal deal which allows it to undercut the E.U. States outside the E.U. fear the economic disruptions of a Brexit, and dread the E.U. becomming more inward looking.

Euroepan secuirty would also be changed. France would be left facing Germany's "culture of restraint" on international affairs, leaving little hope of improvements in European defence. For the USA, a Brexit would stunt long-standing hopes for improvements to European defence cooperation, weakening relations between the E.U. and NATO. A Brexit would create opportunities for outside powers to play on European divisions.

While economic and security concerns remind other E.U. members of the U.K.'s role, they do not necessarily generate sympathy. Instead the feeling is exasperation at London's inability to offer anything but negative leadership. The U.K.'s debate on limiting immigration is seen as a direct attack on the Single Market's right of free movement of people and labour. E.U. countries fear the influence of British Eurosceptics on their own domestic debate and are frustrated London has not done more to confront the issue.

The end result is a situation where the rest of the E.U. is angry at how the U.K. appears to be advancing agendas that are about Britain's national interest and where the threat of Brexit is used as leverage - or blackmail as some see it - to achieve these aims.

For both the E.U. and the U.K., avoiding a further deterioration of relations will not be easy. With the U.K.'s general election campaign soon to get underway (and the ongoing fallout from Scotland's referendum), engaging London on European policies is likely to become even more difficult.

With Britain on the sidelines of E.U. politics, both the U.K. and the rest of the E.U. will need to appreciate that this could easily turn into the outside. Britain could leave, or the E.U. could lose patience and end up excluding Britain by integrating in ways that leave it behind.


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