By Geoffrey Van Orden, MBE
It’s not just the British. Across the continent, people are increasingly unhappy with the European Union. The refugee crisis is only the latest catastrophe to hit the EU following the long-running Greek drama, the eurozone’s financial and economic struggle, the conflict in Ukraine, and a persistent terrorist threat.
The EU has stumbled in its responses to these problems while suffering from an image of a bloated, wasteful bureaucracy bent on undermining the sovereign powers of the European nations. Its remedy for every problem is repetition of a tired mantra: “more Europe.” Designed 60 years ago for a very different world, the EU’s aims no longer match the priorities of today.
The U.S. has long been a supporter of European integration. This dates back to 1946 and George Kennan’s famous telegram favoring European integration under French leadership to help rekindle the German economy and provide a bulwark against communism. More recently, U.S. administrations have been deceived by the idea that the EU would provide an answer to its long-standing demand for greater burden sharing by the Europeans.
But the EU does not make a strong partner. The eurozone economy is sclerotic with 11 percent unemployment and 22 percent youth unemployment, double the rates of the U.K. and U.S. As even German Prime Minister Angela Merkel observed, “the EU accounts for just over 7 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its economy, and 50 percent of global social welfare spending.” This is an unsustainable situation.
It’s no wonder the EU is increasingly unpopular. The average turnout at the last European elections in 2014 was 42.6 percent—in one country, Slovakia, it was just 13 percent. Across Europe, we have seen the rise of Euroskeptic political parties taking a significant proportion of the popular vote—in France, Britain, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Finland, the Netherlands, and even Germany. It is perhaps no coincidence that these (along with Luxembourg and Italy) are the countries—10 out of 28 EU members—that foot the EU bills. The other 18 member countries are net recipients of EU cash.
Forty years ago the British people voted in a referendum to join the EU, and sometime before the end of 2017, they will be asked to vote again.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks of the need for EU reform, he is not just speaking up for the British people—although that, of course, must be his first concern. He seeks what he believes will be good for the EU as a whole.
He has set out the broad changes he wants under four headings in a letter to the president of the European Council: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, and immigration.
As there are currently nine EU countries not in the eurozone (and Britain will never join), it’s important that there is no discrimination. The eurozone must not be allowed to set separate laws to the disadvantage of those not in its subset. Burdensome EU regulation must be cut and the barriers to a fully functioning single market must be removed.
A key element in the founding EU treaty is what is termed “ever closer union.” In other words, in all areas of policy there is one direction of travel toward an eventual United States of Europe. Britain rejects this idea and wants an end to its obligation. It also wants more power for national parliaments within the EU system and choice about opting in to justice measures.
The principle of free movement of people within the EU has become sacrosanct. Theoretically, EU citizens can choose to live where they want in the EU and expect to be treated the same as that country’s nationals. The problem is that they can’t easily be kicked out if they commit serious crimes or simply want to live on welfare. And the numbers moving to Britain are becoming unmanageable—300,000 from the continental EU last year plus even more from Asia and Africa.
Some suggest that Cameron is only asking for what he knows he can get and that his ask is not ambitious enough. For example, there is no mention of cutting Britain’s $20 billion a year subsidy to the EU (second only to Germany) or getting rid of interfering EU laws on control of our fishing industry or on working hours. And there is no call for constraints on the EU’s growing diplomatic service, whose eventual aim is to displace national embassies, or to end the EU’s involvement in military matters where it adds no value and duplicates and undermines NATO.
You might ask, “Why doesn’t Britain just quit the EU?” If reform isn’t forthcoming, it may come to that but there are some reasons why Britain shouldn’t just rush for the exit door.
If Britain left, the EU would still be there, 20 miles across the Channel. If Britain is not at the decision-making table, wielding its veto, there’s nothing to stop Brussels, Paris, or Berlin passing laws that privilege the continent and impact the U.K. adversely, not least concerning the financial sector and migration issues.
British manufacturing and other industries rely significantly on foreign investment. One big reason they invest is to have continued, unfettered access to the EU single market while enjoying all the other advantages that Britain offers.
And there is a wider issue of confidence. Britain’s global allies—its big trading and strategic partners, not least the United States—may have concern and less regard for a Britain that wasn’t also seated in Europe to influence decisions.
But the United States needs to take a more critical view of the EU and recognize that reliable partners are more likely to be found in the individual sovereign states of Europe and through its time-tested military alliance with these states through NATO. As recent events have shown, the EU has difficulty doing things it should be doing. It may have some useful roles, but these are limited and its grand ambitions should be discouraged.
Geoffrey Van Orden, MBE is a Member of the European Parliament from the U.K.’s Conservative Party.
[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]