Alexander Kraik Diplomatic Relations Expanding Community Security, Trade and the Economy Trade Western Europe

Britain’s Future in the EU

The debate surrounding whether or not the U.K. should maintain its membership in the EU has continued unabated in recent times.  Within the next several years, voters within the UK may well determine the success or failure of the political-economic union, with either scenario greatly impacting Britain.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

In January 2013, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promised that if re-elected with a majority government in 2015 he would hold a 2017 referendum on the issue of the U.K.’s membership.  Meantime, the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties argue that a referendum only be held in the event that Britain loses greater sovereignty to the EU.

Interstate tensions were heightened following Cameron’s failed filibuster in June 2014 of Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as a candidate for President of the European Commission.  Whitehall made clear its opposition to the ascension of the Luxembourgian statesman due to Juncker’s long held support for individual states ceding greater control to the EU.  After losing the European Council vote 26-2, with Hungary being his only ally, the British PM cautioned his peers by saying they would “live to regret” the decision and that it would only exacerbate the fraying support of public opinion for the EU in Britain.

In the wake of the Juncker’s election, polling in the U.K. determined that assuming current involvement and relations with the EU remained unchanged, 48% of Britons favoured leaving the bloc, with only 37% supporting continued membership.  The same poll found that if Whitehall were able to negotiate more favourable terms for Britain within the EU, opposition to Britain’s membership dropped to 42%.  Nonetheless, this is hardly a ringing endorsement for the pan-European enterprise.

Those who advocate leaving the union argue for a return of full authority and sovereignty to London, rather than a continuing loss of control to Brussels.  They consider that policies best for continental Europe are not always best for the U.K.  Practically, there is awareness that involvement with the EU has severely strained Britain’s economy.  For example, nearly half of the bloc’s budget goes towards the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), supporting an industry that only accounts for 0.5% of Britain’s GDP and 1.6% of Europe’s.  Effectively, British taxpayers are subsidizing inefficient French farmers – who constitute nearly 20% of the recipients of CAP payments.  At the same time, the EU’s protectionist policies harm U.K. exports while aiding other EU economies and also giving an advantage to non-EU nations.  That financial support is being given to failing European economies rather than being spent to improve Great Britain and its national identity remains a gnawing concern.

One of the most persistent complaints about the EU among U.K. voters concerns immigration.  At present, Britain abides by the central EU tenet of freedom of mobility.  This means that no restrictions can be placed upon workers from member states seeking employment within EU boundaries.  Practically, this has meant that huge numbers of individuals from former Soviet bloc nations, which are EU members, have been flocking to Britain.  Additionally, illegal migrants have slipped through porous borders of other European nations and then, in accordance with EU policies, have legally made their way to the U.K., placing a burden upon British welfare and health care systems.

Britain may hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017

Those who support maintaining membership in the EU cite Europe’s history of warfare and contend that the EU ensures continental security.  Further, they offer that the free market created by the trade bloc benefits the U.K. by providing reductions in trade tariffs.  These same supporters insist that withdrawal from the EU would prompt the exodus from Britain of multi-national corporations, all of which enjoy trade access to the rest of Europe only by virtue of their now being headquartered in London.

The possibility that Britons might elect to leave the EU is seen as more than a remote possibility.  Many Wall Street and Asian banks are currently in the process of creating contingency plans in the event that Britain does leave the union.  According to the Financial Times, many monolithic, influential American banks such as Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are investigating the possibility of moving their operations to Ireland in order to continue to enjoy the tariff free benefits of having central locations in the EU.  However, this may simply be a threat to influence Westminster, as it would be shocking if London were to lose its place as the centre of European commerce, which status it has held for more than a century.

An EU without the U.K. might well be an unmitigated disaster.  Speaking to the possibility, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly emphasized the need for Britain to remain a member of the EU, calling it “unimaginable” if Cameron were to withdraw from the bloc.  Indeed, Britain’s secession would significantly threaten the union’s economic and political survival.  At the very least, it would place an impossible burden upon Germany’s financial resources.

Discussions surrounding the Britain-EU relationship will only intensify as mandated 2015 U.K. elections draw nearer.  If internal schisms remain unresolved, they threaten to not only destroy the EU, but to re-shape the continent and the prosperity and security of its nations.



Alexander Kraik
Alexander Kraik is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an International Relations major concentrating in International Security and Diplomacy with a minor in European Studies. His current research interests include Canadian and American foreign policy and the critical role of regional and multilateral political alliances in the shaping of relations between global powers. In the future, Alexander hopes to attend law school with the aim of studying international trade and regulatory law.