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.