Lost in a 1990s timewarp: the UK and the European Union

Is the crucial change in the UK's position in the EU, that demands a referendum, really the need to extend UK doctors' working hours? And what of the EU – has it got a better story to tell?

Kirsty Hughes
28 January 2013

As debate grows over the UK's future membership of the European Union, many Britons appear lost in a 1990s timewarp. Pro-Europeans argue the UK should be a major player – a leader – in the EU both internally and to have a key role in the EU's international influence in the multipolar world. Anti-Europeans express to varying degrees of paranoia their concerns at Brussels-meddling, their fears of the  'blessed plot' of 'ever closer union' (from which David Cameron promises to liberate the UK while staying in the Union).

And yet a quick look at the UK's current position in the European Union suggests both sides of the debate are in denial, whether about the current reality of British influence or about the likelihood of Britain being dragged unwilling and powerless into an ever-closer European federation.

UK already on an outer-tier – this is neither the 1970s nor 1990s

Over the last decade, the successive positioning of Blair, Brown and now Cameron have  ensured that the UK sits lonely and isolated on the outermost tier of the EU with more opt-outs than any other of the 27 member states. And with a political approach, especially in recent years, that has upset or antagonised many erstwhile allies and so reduced British influence even further.

In essence, the debate that Cameron has launched is about whether the UK should stay on this third outer-tier of the EU or leave (to some unclear future economic relationship with the EU from outside the bloc). It is not a debate – as it was in the 1990s and indeed in 1975 – about whether the UK should remain an equal and major player at the heart of the EU.

The UK opt-outs speak for themselves. The UK sits outside the euro – happily so (despite its own looming triple-dip recession) – with nine other member states. But after Cameron's December 2011 veto drove the other 25 into agreeing their fiscal compact as an intergovernmental treaty outside the EU treaties, only the Czechs stayed outside the compact with the UK. Meanwhile only Ireland (not to risk its open border between south and north) sits with Britain outside Schengen – the border-free zone that even non-EU member Norway is a part of.

And while the UK until recently found it helpful to join in on criminal cooperation measures such as the European Arrest Warrant, Cameron is now leading the UK towards opting-out from around 130 judicial and criminal cooperation measures rather than accept a role for the European Commission in their application.

Meanwhile Cameron and Hague since 2010 have done their utmost to stymie and stall any serious development of influential, effective EU joint foreign policies – not that in the midst of the euro crisis, the Union's role in the region or wider world has received the attention from other European leaders that it should have had.

Today, as hopes of the EU emerging in some ways from the euro crisis are growing, the 25 countries already signed up to the fiscal compact are indeed looking towards 'ever closer union' across a range of banking, monetary and economic policy measures. But the UK is staying apart from any such integration while speaking out if any of the proposed measures are deemed to jeopardise UK economic interests.

The UK today is in many ways exactly where Cameron claims he wants the country to be: Britain has a whole series of opt-outs, there is no pressure on the UK to be part of current economic moves to 'ever closer' union, and yet the UK still has as many votes as France and a full seat at EU summit and ministerial tables.

A partial member with full voting rights – what is there to negotiate?

Britain is in effect a partial member of the EU with full access to the single market and full voting rights but a lot less political clout than France or Germany due to the combined effects of its optouts and its deliberate but also inept political strategies in Europe over the least decade. This strange situation could never have been achieved by a one-off negotiation but rather reflects the history of Britain's positioning in the EU over the last twenty years.

If Cameron were to win the 2015 election – which polling figures suggest is unlikely – what more could he negotiate by way of optouts? In his speech, he referred vaguely to social, environmental and criminal areas of EU law – but the UK is already moving towards a major optout from criminal cooperation. Does he mean to unpick the UK's recent legislation tackling age discrimination (the direct result of an EU law over a decade back)? Or is the crucial change in the UK's position in the EU, that demands a referendum, really the need to extend UK doctors' working hours?

None of this constitutes a serious negotiating position. Cameron claims he wants to keep full membership of the single market. But that single market is about four freedoms (which is why it's so much more than a free trade zone), free movement of goods, people, capital and services – and more optouts will be difficult. And ironically, for all Cameron's emphasis on repatriating powers to member states, he in fact wants to drive through greater integration and harmonisation in the EU services sector, for his own neoliberal, free market reasons.

And so, as others have pointed out, if Cameron ever gets his renegotiation, it will be at best cosmetic. British voters would get a chance to vote on the status quo of the UK on its third outer-tier of the EU. Yet most pro-Europeans (including Cameron on the fringes of that group) will then say it is about the UK choosing between being a major player in the EU, and being shut out of EU decision-making, while the anti-EU crowd will say it's about choosing not to be part of an 'ever closer union'. But the UK is not at risk of being part of an 'ever closer union' – we already opted out of that several times over. And our extensive opt-outs ensure we are not and will not be, even after a yes vote in a referendum, a major player in the  EU as we were in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. So we are at the start of a shadow debate about times past, a debate that risks taking place in total denial of the reality of the UK's current position in the EU.

EU losing global clout

And it's a debate too that risks ignoring other European Union realities. It is not only the UK that is not where it was in the 1990s. Nor is the EU. The euro crisis may look quieter, the politicians less frantic but it is the EU's politics as well as economics that have been tested and found wanting through the crisis. Not the politics of hammering out deals at endless summits, which has held up. But the politics of bringing the people of Europe closer together, of building solidarity across countries, generations and social groups. The crisis, and the policies the EU's leaders have adopted, have left fifty per cent youth unemployment across the southern European member states – with no major policies to tackle it. Politics and society is stressed and changing in many member states. It would be naïve to think there will be no political reckoning from these years of deep crisis, and yet the technocratic language of further EU integration remains unchanged.

It is one more irony too that in whatever shape the EU finally emerges from the crisis, it looks likely to be a future where the EU may still have clout as an economic bloc in the world but where its political or foreign policy influence will probably be weak. As the Arab spring has stumbled, and democracy has faltered in countries like Turkey and Ukraine, the EU has never looked less like an effective influential regional, let alone, global power.

Debating times past

And so the UK looks set to have a shadow debate about times past – a debate that will be in denial about the reality both of the UK's current position in the EU and about the future direction and role of the EU in the world. The UK has in fact already made its choice – it has chosen to be a less influential player in the EU, to sit on its lonely outer-tier more detached than any other member state, with the nice compensation present of having a full seat at the summit table. In that position, the UK will have little influence on where the EU goes next, what sort of economic and political player in the world the Union will become or even how it deals with the problems and challenges it faces at home in Europe. A referendum will do little to change that.


Kirsty Hughes writes this article in a personal capacity

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData