Madrid view: Is the EU better off without the UK?


That the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron has made a serious mistake is evident. The mistake is a basic error considering that the objective of a veto is to prevent someone from doing something, not to let the rest do it without one. Unanimity (the elegant way of calling the right to veto) serves exactly that. So, if what Cameron wanted were safeguards for the British financial industry in return for joining the new Treaty (the so-called "fiscal compact"), the result says it all: the Treaty continues (although with some doubts and legal uncertainties which entangle even more the whole process) while these safeguards are now more unlikely than before.

Formally, Cameron is right to say that his "no" does not imply the withdrawal of the UK in the EU. London remains a full member of the Lisbon Treaty (although with some voluntary opt-outs). And as for the rest, the withdrawal from the EU is voluntary, no one can be expelled. However the question lies in the voluntary withdrawal. Cameron has opened a Pandora's box which could lead him to where he never wanted to go - in other words, to have to call a referendum on the UK’s permanence in the EU. This referendum would basically signify a consultation on EU membership in which Cameron would paradoxically have to ask for a vote in favor of staying in the EU and which would most likely produce a final ‘No’ vote, leading to the end of his political career of double entry.

Always ready to award himself medals, Sarkozy has thrust his chest out, marginalising the UK. For many others in the EU, frustrated by decades of British obstructionism, exclusion of the United Kingdom is also good news. However, the supposed benefits of a secondary role for the UK can be questioned, at least from two different points of view.

First, the Federalists should not ignore that not all the problems in achieving a true political union are in London. Paris and Berlin, in their own way, as we have seen lately, are equally reluctant in completing a real economic and monetary union, preferring to govern Europe through a intergovernmental board where they have all the power and the European institutions play a role secondary (especially the Commission and Parliament). After the euphoria over the rebuff to Cameron, the old problems will return.

On the other hand, the lack of British involvement in the future intergovernmental Treaty will also damage the EU, largely because the 26 will not be able to turn to the European Commission and the Court of Justice to manage and sanction the fiscal union which they want to achieve. Therefore, British obstructionism has not only failed to disappear but it could also increase in the future. How is it possible then that what on Thursday morning was considered essential (modifying the current treaty with a new treaty) is now dispensable (and it is being said that you can make a treaty that does not alter or affect the current treaty)? Incomprehensible.

And finally, for those of us who believe in a strong Europe with a common foreign and security policy, the UK’s participation is essential. Sarkozy himself has experienced this in the sands of Libya, where he couldn’t count on Germany which voted with Russia and China in the Security Council, but where he could count on the British. It is with Cameron that Sarkozy has also been able to create the embryo of a common defence policy through the signing of strategic agreements to share their military capacities. Consequently, to be without the UK could be an acceptable price to pay for a genuine political union in which its members enjoyed equal rights and where there were strong and representative European institutions, including a strong voice in the world and a common foreign policy. However, it doesn’t appear that this will be the path taken by Paris and Berlin, who believe in a more minimalist Europe controlled by national governments. Thus in the present circumstances, Cameron’s error may be paid by all of Europe, not only by him.

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