Splendid isolation


Flicking through the channels two nights ago I came across the Eurovision song contest.  That reminded me of what a mismatch Europe is for the UK.  Isn’t it inevitable that the UK will leave the EU eventually?  Europe is on a slow but ineluctable path to much deeper political union.  Some of the current 27 members of the EU will not accept that Union and will chose to, or be forced, to leave.  It is certain that the UK will not chose to subsume itself into a Federal Europe.  So departure is inevitable.

It may be Europe will proceed with two speed integration.  The 17 members of the Eurozone may chose political integration without the participation of the UK, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Rep, and others.  Or, a deeper  core of Germany, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France, might push ahead alone toward political union.  But, the GFC has highlighted the problems of subsets of the EU integrating at different speeds.  The most significant changes in Europe have to be agreed to at the level of the EU treaty, which gives non-participants veto powers.

Of course we don’t know what will happen to the political structure of Europe, or anywhere else, in the long term.  My guess is that a push for a wholesale remaking of the EU treaty into a European Constitution will arise soon after the economic crisis in Europe has passed.  That push will be unstoppable, and countries that won’t ratify a new European Constitution will be effectively opting out of political integration in Europe.

I think the UK should leave the EU as soon as is practicable.  It is a bad marriage which will cause a lot of anguish to both sides and there are no children to consider.  The sooner they end it the better for both sides.  The UK is a Liberal Democratic society that will always feel suffocated by, and alienated by, a socially democratic Europe.

Opponents of a UK exit from Europe, such as the Economist magazine, argue that it would be an economic catastrophe for the UK.  I can’t see that at all.  Why will the UK not be able to do just as well as Switzerland or Norway?  These are much smaller countries than the UK, but so what?

The US position on the possible departure of the UK from Europe is interesting.  The State Department and President Obama himself have stated quite clearly that they oppose a UK exit.  They have told the UK explicitly that it will be ‘isolated’ if it leaves Europe (they don’t mean ‘splendid isolation’).  That term ‘isolated’ seems to be a clear statement that the UK should not consider any kind of union with the US if it leaves Europe, and certainly should not try to negotiate entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before leaving Europe.

I think there is something important and subliminal in the US position on UK membership of the EU.  If the UK leaves Europe then it will be hard for the US political class to ignore that.  The UK as a floating, ‘isolated’ element in the global community will inevitably start a conversation about what the US should do about that.  Should the US push for UK entry to NAFTA?  Should the US consider some form of union with the UK?  This later question is one the US doesn’t want to think about but it would be hard  to ignore.  The US has such as sense of its own ‘specialness’ and destiny that it doesn’t want to ever think about political union with anyone.  This attitude is expressed in the US attitude to international treaties and forums of all types.  But, the bond between the US political class and the UK is very, very strong.  They really care about the UK.  Thinking about an isolated UK will lead to thoughts about whether the political structure of the United States is immutable — and such thoughts are a form a heresy in the US.

A possible UK exit from the EU also impacts the question of whether Scotland should exit the UK.  For many Scots the idea of a Scotland that travels into the future on a parallel but separate course to the UK is an appealing one.  They want to be separate but still much more closely engaged with the UK than any other country.  The possibility of a UK exit from Europe after a Scottish exit from the UK introduces a lot of uncertainty for Scots.  As the likelihood of a UK exit from Europe grows the likelihood of Scottish succession from the UK will likely shrink.

5 Responses to "Splendid isolation"
  1. Sam,

    Great article! I agree that the UK would never choose to join a federal Europe. I think that US pressure for the UK to remain in the EU reflects America’s desire to wield that veto in European affairs. I don’t see any reason why the UK couldn’t join NAFTA. What do you think are the prospects of North American continentalism? Also, do you think that the US will remain a liberal democracy, or will it become another social democracy?

  2. The UK will not leave Europe to its own devices unless the integrated Europe project completely founders. This is because a united continental Europe is, as it has always been, a long-term security threat to the UK. The UK must therefore maintain a voice, and if necessary play a spoiling role, in the affairs of a contintental Europe that is integrating more tightly.

    The UK doesn’t join Europe because it believes in a united Europe, but because it distrusts a united Europe that doesn’t include the UK.

  3. > As the likelihood of a UK exit from Europe grows the likelihood of Scottish succession from the UK will likely shrink.

    I disagree. The anti-EU sentiment is chiefly English, not British. UKIP support is weaker in Wales and non-existent in Scotland. From Holyrood, Brussels is a counterweight to the power of Westminster. Take away EU membership and the political class in Edinburgh would likely accelerate towards independence. Following independence, those same political leaders would (rightly) see a Scotland as an isolated powerless irrelevance, and seek EU accession.

  4. I think it is very unlikely the UK will ever leave the EU. The common-market ‘free trade’ aspects of the EU are well recognised and quite popular among the British public. The ‘two speed integration’ model is much more likely, with the euro-zone gradually forced into fiscal union and the other 10 EU members maintaining the status-quo. Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part though. As a Brit I’ve always liked the idea of being European.

    There is some polling data on this showing a lead for the ‘leaving’ option (46 % to 35%), but there is a large number of ‘don’t knows’ (16%) that I think (hope!) would swing over to ‘staying in’ as any referendum approached.


  5. Mr. Wylie, as an American I would like to add my perspective on why the American political class seems to want the UK to stay in the EU. One reason is inate conservatism. Many people in DC had a hard time predicting the fall of the USSR when it was quite obvious. They had gotten used to the status quo

    Secondly, union with the UK would upset the political balance in the US in ways that the political class does not want to contemplate. As I am sure some Brits have thought, the sheer population of the UK would mean that it would exert great power in any such union. They would as you say only think about it if forced by events.

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