United Kingdom Moves Away from the European Project

By Adriano Bosoni
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The excerpts also cite Cameron as saying "people are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the Continent." This rhetoric could become highly attractive in Europe, where people from Germany to Finland believe that taxpayers' money is being used to bail out inefficient peripheral countries. And many Greek, Spanish and Portuguese citizens probably would sympathize with the notion that austerity is worsening their quality of life. Cameron's rhetoric suggests that he is positioning the United Kingdom to be the leader of a counternarrative that opposes Germany's view of the crisis.

But this strategy is not without risks for the United Kingdom. In recent years, the country's veto power in the European Union has been reduced substantially. With each reform of the European treaties, unanimous decisions were replaced by the use of qualified majority. Even in cases where unanimity is required, Berlin and Paris have managed to bypass London when making decisions. For example, Cameron refused to sign the fiscal compact treaty in 2011, but Germany and France decided to proceed with it, even if only 25 of the 27 EU members accepted it.

Moreover, the "enhanced cooperation mechanism," the system by which EU members can make decisions without the participation of other members, increasingly has been used to move forward with European projects. Currently, the EU's Financial Transaction Tax is being negotiated under this format. In recent times, London has been able only to achieve exemptions without real power to block decisions.

Meanwhile, the ongoing crisis has compelled the European Union to prioritize the 17 members of the eurozone over the rest of the bloc. This has created a two-speed Europe, where core EU members integrate even further as the others are neglected somewhat. London could try to become the leader of the non-eurozone countries, but these countries often have competing agendas, as evidenced by recent negotiations over the EU budget. In those negotiations, the United Kingdom was pushing for a smaller EU budget to ease its financial burden, but countries like Poland and Romania were interested in maintaining high agricultural subsidies and strong development aid.

The dilemma is best understood in the context of the United Kingdom's grand strategy. Unnecessary political isolation on the Continent is a real threat to London. The more the European Union focuses on the eurozone, the less influence the United Kingdom has on continental Europe. The eurozone currently stretches from Finland to Portugal, creating the type of unified, Continental entity that London fears.

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For the British, this threat can be mitigated in several ways, the most important of which is its alliance with the United States. As long as London is the main military ally and a major economic partner of the world's only superpower, continental Europe cannot afford to ignore the United Kingdom. Moreover, London also represents a viable alternative to the German leadership of Europe, especially when France is weak and enmeshed in its own domestic problems. And even if the United Kingdom chooses to move away from mainland Europe, its political and economic influence will continue to be felt in the Continent.

The United Kingdom's grand strategy has long been characterized by balancing between Europe and the United States. Currently, London is not so much redefining that grand strategy as it is shifting its weight away from Europe without completely abandoning the Continent.

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"United Kingdom Moves Away from the European Project is republished with permission of Stratfor."

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