Brexit: The British Inability To Comprehend Bro-operation

On 11 November 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech on ‘The Future of Britain’s Relationship with the European Union’. Delivered at Chatham House, he outlined the four reforms the United Kingdom sought from the European Union: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, and immigration.

Essentially, the message was this: the United Kingdom wants to stay in the European Union, as long as it can get its way in the four areas above. What if that doesn’t happen? What if it does?

Donald Tusk replied – in a letter to all European Union leaders – on 7 December 2015. In contrast his letter was remarkably ‘eur-operative’, at times recognising the delicacy of political debate (vis-à-vis immigration), at other times giving an almost fresher’s-like guide to the European Union.

But above all, prioritising the European community as a whole.

And somewhere in the shadows, the spectre of Brexit continues to lurk, with the UK still planning to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to remain a member of the European Union.

This author thinks the idea of Great Britain leaving the European Union is a foolish idea.

Here’s why:

  1. We can’t seem to intelligently articulate the idea of leaving the European Union.

Why do we say Brexit? Why do we use such jargon?

The thing about jargon is that it creates an exclusive vocabulary, designed to make those who understand it look intelli-megent, and those who don’t to be excluded. But it sounds incredibly wanky. Brexit. Grexit. Isn’t it useful that these countries’ names start with a plosive stop? Wouldn’t it be awkward if Finland wanted to leave the EU? (Fexit). Or Sweden (Swexit – or could we just say Sexit?)

How can we understand the full implications of what ‘Brexit’ would entail for the United Kingdom if our discussions are simplified to such jargon? And to what extent does the coinage of such jargon influence the debate? I am concerned that, with the existence and increasingly common usage of the term ‘Brexit’, the idea becomes a pre-determined outcome.

People say Brexit, and then expect Brexit.

  1. The United Kingdom already receives significant special treatment from the European Union.

On 10 November 2015, David Cameron wrote to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and acknowledged that the UK’s concerns really boiled down to one thing: flexibility.

Flexibility. Do British people not know that the United Kingdom already has a greater amount of flexibility than any other EU member-state? One wonders, then, how much more flexibility the United Kingdom actually needs?

Since the United Kingdom first joined in 1973, it has cherry-picked what it wanted from the European Union. This included a special calculation of the UK’s budgetary contribution, reform demands for the Common Agricultural Policy, concessions to Commonwealth commercial interests, and (even then) protection of British sovereignty. As Roy Jenkins, former President of the European Commission, observed at the time, the entre negotiation process for the UK’s accession ‘produced the minimum results with the maximum ill-will’.

The non-involvement in Schengen and the Euro are the two most obvious examples, but there are more insidious examples of the UK’s inability to ‘bro-operate’ with the EU. The United Kingdom’s contribution to the European Union’s budget, for example:

The UK is one of the five largest net-contributors to the EU, and yet – out of all of the 28 member-states – is the smallest contributor by percentage of gross national income. What is more, the UK negotiated a special calculation for its budgetary contribution, so that two-thirds of the UK’s contribution is returned. This UK rebate was negotiated in 1984 to offset the Common Agricultural Policy, at a time when the UK was one of the poorest EU countries (in an EU of 10 member-states). This rebate is now wholly anachronistic: the Common Agricultural Policy has consistently been reformed such that it no longer represents the majority of the EU’s expenditure, and the UK is most definitely not one of the EU’s poorest member-states.

For example, the UK rebate for 2013 was €4.3bn. But remember in November 2014, when the United Kingdom was asked to cough up £1.7billion to the EU budget, based on more accurate calculations of how the UK economy has been performing since 1995? George Osborne worked very hard to negotiate a deferred payment until September 2015 (interest free!).

Back to today, and Donald Tusk’s ‘eur-operative’ response on flexibility. “There is wide agreement that the concept of ‘ever closer union among the peoples’”, Tusk writes on the question of national sovereignty, “allows for various paths of integration for different countries…There is (the importance of) national parliaments within the Union as well as strong emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity.” Ah yes, subsidiarity. That principle. Found in Article 3b of the Treaty of Lisbon (signed by the previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown). “Where the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.”

  1. The UK would be ****ed if it left the EU.

Maybe this is a little dramatic. Maybe the alternatives would compensate for what would be lost if the UK left the EU. But I don’t think so. Personally, I think the alternatives are over-estimated.

I think London would be OK. One of the major financial centres of the world, supported with a stable political government and an anglo-culture, I think it would retain its important position.

But what about the rest of the UK?

Europe is the UK’s largest trading area. After all, it makes sense – even in a globalised world, it is easier to trade with one’s closest geographical neighbours. This is not to underestimate the importance of the United States or China, but the UK is just not big enough in and of itself to meet these trading partners on equal terms. And there have already been efforts to set up preferential trade agreements with the former Commonwealth countries – but they, too, benefit from trading with their closest neighbours. Three of the biggest four trading partners with Australia, for example, are all within South-East Asia (China, Japan and Korea).

And if the UK left the EU, would it need to negotiate preferential trade agreements with the EU? Would it negotiate bi-lateral trade agreements with each individual member-state? Or would it join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA)?

Why not just stay in the European Union, and learn how to Bro-operate?


Hilary Manning, European Affairs Editor

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