Open Europe Blog

Britain: The critical voice of reason?

We’ve been monitoring how the British Europe debate is being received across the continent throughout the Juncker episode (here and here), and already noted how large parts of the German commentariat have come out fighting for the UK to remain in the EU, especially because it is in Germany’s long-term strategic interest.

Today’s Handelsblatt features a joint op-ed looking at the pros and cons of British membership of the EU, with the paper’s political editor Jan Mallien writing:

“The British question [EU] bureaucracy, fight against agricultural subsidies, and ensure that any transfer of power to Brussels is discussed critically. Thus, they provide important impulses — and make themselves unpopular. In a shared house, they would be in charge of the cleaning-rota. Of course, one can kick-out the person who is charged with the cleaning rota from a shared household. But it would be an illusion to think that the others would never have to clean again.”

He continues:

“With their critical attitude, the British are a key driver of reform. Some German newspapers insinuate that Cameron is on an anti-European course. Those who say something like that are simplifying matters: The Brits are in favor of another [vision of the] EU. In many ways, they are fighting the correct battles.”

Mallien concludes:

 “Sure, there are some issues where agreement would be easier without [the Brits.] The Financial Transaction Tax, for example. However, these are mainly symbolic issues. The EU is not much better-off with a Financial Transaction Tax. But without the British an important drive for reform will be missing. A Brexit would therefore make the EU poorer — and not just economically.”

On the other side of the fence, Handelsblatt columnist Désirée Linde says:

“Why all the whining about the nightmare scenario of a British EU-exit? If the British want to get out of the EU, continental Europe should let them go. Because, contrary to suggestions of doomsayers and EU-haters, it would not spell the beginning of the end for the EU. Yes, it would be a shock, but one that provides an opportunity for the EU. The cost of a Brexit for the EU is undisputed. Great Britain is one of the EU’s biggest net contributors paying over €7bn per year.”

She continues that while a Brexit would be “uncomfortable for the EU,” it would be “fatal” for the UK, and concludes:

“From the outset, the British lacked commitment to integration… Brexit would not build a way back to the European Community for the British. So it is up for all of Europe’s friends in the UK to perceive this as a cleansing thunderstorm and develop a whole new enthusiasm for Europe. The fact that Europe is not just a customs union, but also a political project is something that the British have not yet understood…It is time that the UK learns. And if it must be, the hard way.”

Linde buys into the whole German “pro-integration” rhetoric. However, as we have noted repeatedly, one of the greatest ironies of the German-Europe debate is how to square the need for more integration, especially in the eurozone, with Germany’s national interests. This is lost on Linde. 

As a post-script, it’s not only the Germans who are coming out in favour of Britain. The French  commentariat has been speaking out too, fearful of the imbalance a Bexit would cause in the European club. In today’s Le Figaro, French columnist Renaud Girard describes the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as new European Commission President as “an unnecessary affront” to the UK, and argues:

 “It is irresponsible to push London on the slippery slope of EU exit… As far as France is concerned, it has no interest in finding itself head-to-head with Germany.” 

The Juncker-episode has shown that the moment of truth on the UK’s future in Europe is drawing closer – and it also appears to be focusing minds across the Channel that an EU without Britain may not be in anyone’s interest.

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