Is Europe Better Off Without Britain?
It was to be expected. The "deal" hashed out between British Prime Minister David Cameron and the European Union is enticing other countries to rake in some goodies of their own. Thus Cameron's campaign to keep Great Britain inside the European Union is already having a detrimental effect on European solidarity.
Cameron needed a deal with the European Union as a motif; a tangible reason to convince doubting voters in the upcoming referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership to vote Remain, and not to leave the European Union. Cameron needed something to show for his efforts in Brussels while campaigning at home to remain in the Union.
In this he barely succeeded. Those who were in favor of leaving the European Union were expected to be unconvinced. Even if Cameron had come back to London carrying bags of money and a write of unassailable sovereignty, there still is a substantial part of the population, especially in England, that wants the blue and gold flag removed from the island, full stop. The big question is whether Cameron's deal will convince those on the fence to come down on the Remain side.
But whatever the outcome of the referendum set for June 23, Cameron's gambit is already having repercussions. It appears to have triggered precisely what many politicians on the Continent feared. Among the points agreed upon with the government leaders and the EU leadership is an arrangement under which children of EU citizens working in Britain will receive lower child benefits. Eastern European countries railed against this proposal, and with reason: Many of their people work in Great Britain, and the British benefits are a boon.
Eastern European nations united in the so-called Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) fear that other countries may want to copy that provision -- if not to save money, then because it makes electoral sense in right-wing and hard left-wing quarters. And lo and behold, not 24 hours after Cameron crowed victory in London, some countries voiced their interest in requesting the freedom to lower child benefits for EU workers in their countries.
All this has many a pro-EU pol gritting his or her teeth. Solidarity among EU nations is already increasingly out of favor, and provisions like these do not help. The willingness from leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel to come to a meaningful compromise with London itself is fostering polarization between Continental and British politicians. In the Dutch parliament, pro-EU parties warned Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte not to give in to blackmail from London just for the sake of keeping Great Britain in the Union.
The Great Unraveling
All this is happening at a time when solidarity is under severe attack anyway, thanks to the ongoing refugee crisis. The Schengen treaty guaranteeing the free movement of citizens in the European Union is under stress. Belgium suspended the treaty along its border with France; Austria is reinstating tight border controls with so-called transit countries such as Hungary, through which refugees try to reach Germany. This move follows in the footsteps of the likes of Slovenia and Hungary itself, while Macedonia -- not an EU member -- is building razorwire fences along its borders with Greece. Bulgaria -- an EU member state -- is gearing up to do the same.
The last thing the European Union needs right now is one of its major players, Great Britain, creating more havoc should Cameron lose and the Leave-vote win. Some EU capitals fear that this would be the starting sign for a new round of negotiations to keep Great Britain in the European Union, resulting in more unraveling of EU treaties. This is why the French and Belgian governments insisted on an agreement for a so-called self-destruct mechanism, which would see the European Union nullify its compromise agreement with London if Britain votes to leave.
Of course, the power plays among EU states are what drive some capitals to want to keep London in the European family, and others to throw them out. Germany doesn't want to be left alone to deal with France. Germany and countries such as the Netherlands were content to side with Great Britain every now and then to seal off the off-and-on Rome-Paris axis. Poland, meanwhile, is seeking a bigger seat at the table, while Southern European nations would rather see France strengthened so as to weaken Germany's tough austerity politics.
But throughout all of this, it is worth remembering that many EU countries have been wary of Great Britain's membership ever since former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously stormed into Europe demanding that London "get its money back." In the past decades, successive British governments have demanded exception after exception, up to the point where one wonders whether British membership is anything more than just a handy battering ram at the negotiating table.
If Great Britain is going to create only bigger headaches for the European project, it is perhaps best to say goodbye to Albion. Chances are that in the not too distant future, England -- maybe without the then-independent Scotland -- will come knocking on Brussels' door again.