European Council on Foreign Relations

Madrid view: A British Europe

Returning from London I am still stunned by the growing intensity of the Europhobe-Europhile debate. The EU is a corrupt, undemocratic entity that is robbing us, say some in the heat of the budget debate. If we leave the EU, say others, we'll become a kind of Singapore. Indeed, in the cold light of day there can be little reason for surprise at the raw nature of this battle. The British are now headed for two referendums that will clarify questions of particular importance: is Scotland to remain in the UK, and the UK in the EU? If a country's national identity hinges on questions about who we are, what we want, and with whom we are to achieve it, then two principal anchorages of any state are being called into question here.

We often hear that this debate shows the low degree of Europeanization in the UK, which entered the EU reluctantly, as the result of a chain of internal and external failures, but without the support of either the public or the elite, and much less of the media. As De Gaulle put it, Britain's entry was "against nature, structure and conjuncture." From this point of view, its possible exit would not only amend, once and for all, the error of its entry, but would also enable the British to concentrate on what they do best (float in the Atlantic with no political moorings, and trade with the rest of the world?) while allowing the rest of the Europeans to do what they have been aspiring to do (form a political union built around Paris and Berlin?). But the talk about the Europeanization of the UK is only half the story, and perhaps not the most relevant half. If we look at the mark the UK has stamped on the EU, we find it is anything but small.

Firstly, the number of members. If we are 27 (soon 28), it is due largely to the UK's sustained support for the enlargements of the Union. Whether intended to hinder integration, or based on an intelligent reading of history and the future, the fact is we are now an extensive, open Europe thanks largely to the British. The same can be said of the internal market, another of the great EU projects. The UK has been a great driving force behind this project, which has been -- and still is -- one of the main sources of wealth that Europeans have at their disposal, not to mention the principal asset and attraction of the European presence in the world. Since the 1980s, thanks to the vision of Britain, which supported the use of the qualified majority (as opposed to unanimity) for questions related to the internal market, we have advanced rapidly along the path of creation of markets, inward and outward, while keeping a tight budgetary leash on certain areas such as agricultural policy, which had previously burgeoned out of hand to absorb more than half the EU budget.

Unfortunately the EU has too small a budget, for which the UK is largely to blame; but this budget is also more rational, transparent and innovation-oriented thanks largely to Britain's determination to clip the wings of the alliance between agricultural and regional interest groups in the EU bureaucracy.

And it is no less true that this EU, with its variable geometry, in which Danes, Irish, Swedes and Britons can have their way in not being part of the euro, defense, free circulation and social policy, is also the responsibility of London. Then there is the question of foreign and security policy, which are inconceivable without the participation of the UK -- since the Germans, as they have often shown, are not prepared to help the EU become a global actor. Like it or not, the fact is that the UK's legacy is impressive, and very much alive. It is not without paradox that the UK is now preparing to leave the EU, after having molded it so profoundly. Moreover, after they go, we shall go on using English to understand each other, in a British Europe without the British.

The article first appeared in El Pais.

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