Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Professor in International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at Oxford University, says the EU might be dysfunctional but it is still Britain’s home. Help us fix it from the inside. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s first guest editor week on openDemocracy.
Dear British friends,
My kids and husband are British, I teach and pay taxes in this country, talk to my village neighbours everyday and love English country lanes, Scottish castles, Welsh road-signs, Cornwall’s gardens and all the bloody rest of it. As a French and Greek citizen, I won’t have a vote in this referendum and yet this is one of the most momentous decisions that will ever be taken in my name, as a European citizen living on this side of the channel.
So, along with the two million other EU expats living here, and millions on the continent who feel passionate about Britain’s European vocation, all I can do is plead: dear British friends, please stay.
Who are we to tell you that the EU is good for Britain, that the benefits of membership outweigh the costs, and that uncertainty is painful for the pocketbook and painful for the soul? Costs and benefits fluctuate over time and everything is uncertain in this day and age.
But there is one thing which many of us from the rest of Europe feel very certain about: the EU would be much worse off without Britain. Yes: don’t just ask what Europe can do for you, ask what you can do for Europe.
We need you to remain in for Europe’s sake because what is good for the EU is ultimately good for Britain. We appeal to your greater collective self, historic Britain, visionary Britain, dynamic Britain and common sense Britain. The EU project has proven very vulnerable to external shocks, whether financial, geopolitical or humanitarian, trying to survive amidst a tsunami of crisis. Britain is not in the habit of abandoning a continent in trouble. If European history has taught us anything it is that we need Britain to step in when the powers on or outside the continent make a mess of it. It remains true today.
And we need Britain’s tradition of tolerance and ‘loyal opposition’ to continue to inspire and attract a Europe threatened by the dark side of populism – the claim that one party, one leader, one ideology can represent the one true people. To be sure, much can still be improved in the way the UK manages its own diverse society, and much can be criticised in the way it has bailed out of taking in its fair share of refugees. But we have no Orban or Kaczynski here – all is relative.
We need you to continue to fight for a better EU from the inside, to sit around the table and make a nuisance of yourself if need be. If you leave, the EU could be captured by those who equate commitment to peaceful union with a systematic need to centralise and merge. It is unlikely that the EU would become a ‘super-state’ even if Brexit wins the day, but it will continue to be too top-down for our digital age of distributed intelligence. And European leaders may be tempted to leave aside Cameron’s agenda for reform and ease their way back into their traditional comfort zone.
We need you to continue to be the voice of all the countries at the periphery of the EU who have been told to just follow the lead of the Franco-German engine. From Portugal to Latvia, from Poland to Denmark, from Greece to Finland, many across Europe share the British fear of being governed at a distance. Confident Britain often dares to be their champion. As for the French and the Germans they need you to balance each other. Why leave a club where you are so valued as a member?
We need you, in short, because Britain is the most powerful reminder that the essence of the EU is not to be against nations but against the hegemony of a single one: big states of Europe, do not swallow smaller ones. Yes, the EU looks like a complicated and arcane machine. But that is because its saving grace is to play to Britain’s favour: to institutionalise balance of power in Europe.
Please do not buy Boris Johnson’s line too easily: sure I love Europe, its museums, monuments, beaches and food, but the EU is not Europe. Would Boris prefer to visit like any old tourist rather than feeling ‘at home abroad’ anywhere in Europe? If more than two million Brits benefit from EU reciprocity rule when living on the continent, is it simply because they are ‘European’ or because they are also EU citizens with all the rights that involves? Doesn’t Boris see that the EU, imperfect as it, is what Europeans, its leaders and a majority of its citizens – including in the UK – have chosen to be in the wake of WWII? Does he not see that the EU may be flawed and in urgent need of repair, but that it is the latest variant in the most quintessential game played in Europe since Roman times: to come up with clever post-war schemes to live together peacefully with our differences.
Does Boris never face situations in life where the best is the enemy of the good? How can we not agree with him that there is a best EU out there in the ideal Platonic world, which truly reflects peoples’ yearning for control over their lives? A best EU which only ever passes regulations that make sense to every member state and every constituency? To be sure, many of these rules have been good for Britain, including for those who care about social fairness – consider non discrimination and gender equality. And more often than not, standards in Europe are mutually recognised (your diploma is valid in my country) rather than harmonised. But alas there are always winners and losers with every standard. An EU regulation that tries to encourage innovation to make home appliances more energy efficient in order to comply with our international commitments regarding climate change might be derided by Boris et al but praised by environmentalists. The former may be right that the regulation could be improved. But isn’t that a reason to stay in and improve it? If Britain were to stay in the single market under whichever one of Boris’ unclear preferred scenarios, it would keep the rules without the seat.
Is Boris really a quitter? There is no doubt that the Brussels bubble needs to learn that it does not have to regulate everything and that there is such a thing as good and worthy repatriation of power to the member states. Even centralised federal systems do this under the idea of “cycles of federalism”. But it is simply not true that the European Court of Justice renders British law obsolete. It has little jurisdiction in areas like health, education or welfare, and tends to serves as a mediator between states as to whose law applies, often finding in favor of British rules on British territory. And it is not true that EU regulation is irreversible. Albeit too slowly, the so-called ‘better regulation agenda’ is currently enforced by a fierce Dutch commissioner, and new rules can include sunset clauses. One of these days, lets hope that even the infamous working time directive will be revisited. And if you ask me, I would love to see a sustainability impact assessment to ensure that we think about the long term when we pass EU directives – but we can only push the case if we sit around the table.
What about those who say that the EU stifles innovation? To be sure science and patents are open to the world. But didn’t Airbus develop world-beating fly-by-wire avionics by bringing together four countries including the UK; didn’t the Euro-wide Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) set the global standard for mobile phones; and didn’t the flagship EU Human Brain Project produce truly breakthrough science? Sure, no-one beats California. But aren’t Europeans leaders too, from clones to driverless cars to clean tech? If innovators need scale for their tests, London to Ljubljana beats London to Brighton.
Do you really have to choose between the EU and the Commonwealth? The EU is not Switzerland writ large. It wants to collectively transform the world for the better. It often fails but the aspiration remains. Britain and France together are key to this ambition. The EU makes it easier for both to deal with their colonial legacies while serving as power multiplier when it comes to negotiating in the World Trade Organisation or the UN. If Britain left the EU, a weaker Europe would mean a weaker western world and less bargaining power when dealing with China or Russia. In the end, if Obama urges REMAIN on one side and Putin savours the prospect of LEAVE on the other, do you really want to go with the Kremlin against Washington because you are fed up about an EU vacuum cleaner regulation?
For Europe’s sake, take the deal on offer. In the short term, rejoice that Britain has the best of all worlds, a single market without the Schengen zone, an EU financial hub without the euro, and after Cameron’s renegotiation the power to better protect British interests in the bits from which it is exempted. Sure there are caveats to all this, but it is telling that the concessions were painful to Britain’s EU partners. They bemoan the appearance that we have moved from the era of opt-out and exemptions, to a formal two-tier Europe.
But should they? Is there any doubt that the EU will survive and hopefully one day thrive through coalitions of the willing and so-called enhanced cooperation among sub-groups? Is there any doubt that, in fact, this will allow us to stay together is the spirit of mutual recognition among equal European peoples, the spirit of non-domination by Brussels, Berlin or Washington, and the spirit of flexible participation? As long as we continue to strengthen the foundations of our common house, EU institutions and values, the glue among EU states and citizens will be togetherness not harmony or uniformity.
It is a pity that Cameron’s negotiating counterparts reframed the negotiations as a way to help Britain carve a special status in the EU, for fear of reform contagion. British exceptionalism might resonate with many in Britain but often for the wrong reasons. After all, exceptionality is the most widely shared trait among nations! In truth, reforming Europe itself must remain the main reward for staying in.
Ironically, the LEAVE campaign vehemently argues that the deal will not stick, although they would ‘love to take Europe’s promise at face value.’ Should we not infer that they like this promise if they care so much about its enforcement? In the unlikely event that they are right, a UK that has voted IN always retains the right to take stock and leave. Does this option not make more sense than voting to leave pre-emptively, just in case the promise was not fulfilled?
Make no mistake, the EU will be changed by your vote to remain. Why? Because you would have affirmed that a majority of British citizens are in to make it better. By your vote, you will have demonstrated that the prejudice among those in Europe who see you as little islanders with inflated pride is just that: prejudice. And by your vote, you will have reaffirmed the ideal of a union where we are together by choice, not banned from leaving as in the kind of federal state born with the American civil war, 150 years ago.
The EU will be changed by your vote to remain because much of what the UK traditionally pushes for – from the single market and integration of financial services to enlargement – tends to become EU mainstream.
The EU in fact will have to change. It will have to learn to better balance the need for common rule to manage our interdependence fairly, as the French insist, and effectively, as the German want, with the risk that ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies end up defeating the purpose for which they were initially designed. The governance of the Eurozone will need to concentrate on helping individual member states better internalise their obligations to other states rather than on creating ever more coercive enforcement mechanisms. If it does that, the UK might even step up its participation. The idea, for instance, that there will be a single but differentiated EU rule book for banks to ensure that the City will not be governed from Frankfurt could allow the UK to eventually feel secure enough to join the newly created banking union, and its precious joint depository scheme.
Similarly, the British government may have been clumsy in its approach of what it calls benefit tourism. But who doubts that in the era of globalisation, we need to think hard about how we reconcile the principle of free movement of people with perceptions of fairness and the requirement to sustain our welfare states? As for the deal on national parliaments, let us hope that it is only the beginning of a process where advocates stop considering the European parliament, worthy as it can sometimes be, as the magic bullet that will solve Europe’s democratic woes. EU officialdom needs to re-discover the need to anchor its democratic credentials in the legitimacy of local democracy, starting indeed with national parliaments. We have reached the end of the Eurocrat’s dream where the EU decision making world must wake up to the challenge of true democratic demands across Europe and adapt to Europe’s political, economic and social diversity.
Over the next few years, Britain can help shape an EU that organises itself as a multi-currency union committed to the health and sustainability of national democracies and welfare states. Without Britain, the momentum could be lost and the EU would diverge further away from British political preferences, making it an ever more difficult negotiating partner. Cameron’s claim to have negotiated a “reformed” EU is certainly over-inflated. But if his claim is about the direction of travel, wouldn’t it be a tragedy to derail the journey?
Scores of Europeans on the continent these days would like to hug a Brit – at least virtually! – to make sure you get the message: this is your family, it may be broken, it may be dysfunctional, it may even be on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown, but it is the only one you’ve got. Sure, you have far flung cousins on the other side of the pond and the other side of the world. But these are just that, distant relatives who happen to speak your language. Hey, we all manage to speak some kind of English too on the other side of the Channel, albeit with different and funny accents. And in these funny accents, we kindly request your utmost attention to our plea. You are more at home in this infuriating EU of ours then anywhere in the world. Please stay home.
Kalypso Nicolaïdis is Professor in International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at Oxford University.
This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.