How “European” is Britain? The question goes back at least as far as “Splendid Isolation” and arguably all the way to the reign of Henry VIII. The answer has always been some variation on “kind of,” but today an official response came a bit closer as the Labour Shadow Europe Secretary, Jim Murphy, suggested that Britain should at some point hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership. Though the official Labour Party stance on Europe is that Britain should remain in the Union, such a statement from a high-ranking party member suggests that the Labour bulwark against the EU referendum may be coming under strain.
Britain and Europe have always had an unusual relationship. The UK played the role of balancer long before the foundation of the European Union and maintains significant sway within the EU despite its half-in, half-out policy. Euro-skepticism gained extraordinary force under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher who clawed back huge amounts of British contributions to European funds and famously said “no, no, no!” to the single currency. Since that time, strains in the UKs involvement in Europe have grown more and more pronounced. Britain was forced to leave the ESM, has clung to its many opt-outs, and has resisted virtually all attempts at European political integration. This has led to a whole host of descriptors for the Britain-EU relationship.
Describe it however you want -- “two-tier,” “two-speed,” “multi-track,” -- Europe and Britain must settle their stances once and for all. Though any referendum will be held after the dust of the EU debt crisis storm settles, both sides now seem to know it is coming. Europe knows it must demand what it can expect from the UK, and the UK knows that it must either accept a higher profile in Europe or abdicate its role entirely. Perhaps to go out to the green pastures of the randomly-still-extant EEA.
The coming decision bears a whole range of consequences for the United States regardless of the outcome. America has accepted the European Union as an important institutional guarantor of peace on the continent. It restrained Germany (even once united), promoted interdependence, and spread norms which tamped down dangerous nationalist tendencies across the board. The British referendum may throw the balance out of kilter.
One of the elements that made the EU tolerable to America is that it has never been particularly united. France and Germany tend to be wary of each other, and the United Kingdom could always be depended upon to throw a wrench in the works if the federal project seemed to be gaining too much steam. However, once the British are in or out, their single biggest trump card is gone; they can no longer threaten to leave. The UK will lose much or all of its ability to affect institutional formation within the EU, potentially leading to greater European fiscal, financial, and political integration or to dissolution of the EU under the many internal pressures which Britain has historically helped to mitigate through its unique position. Both options are anathema to an America aimed at maintaining the status quo.
Europe without Britain may also be dangerously tilted towards Germany. Much as has been seen oh, twice, before, an increasingly muscular Germany seems to be able to overcome balancing by France and other members. Leaving mighty Germany to exercise outsize control over the whole of the European continent through supranational institutions and its own purse strings is also against American hegemonic interests.
Lastly, there are the more direct threats and gains for the USA. The “special relationship” is real and valuable. Unity and cultural affinity within the English-speaking world have been extraordinarily economically and politically productive. This productivity is based on the Anglo-American relationship. As two of the only rich countries with major reserve currencies, the ability to project military power, and global socio-political economic reach, the US and Britain do a great deal to enhance each other’s power. Though the UK has rarely done America’s bidding without question, it has been content to play the role of junior partner.
If Britain votes in favour [sic] of membership, it may well find itself drawn out of America’s orbit. If it votes out, the United States may well benefit from still more sway as European support for Britain becomes optional. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher and a great many Tories were fond of suggesting NAFTA: the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. But this outcome remains far from certain; Britain may choose to use its newly free hand to excercise a more independent foreign policy.
The vote is still a way off, and a lot can change. But with Labour beginning to come on board, it’s beginning to appear on the horizon at last. Europe and the United Kingdom know it must, and probably look forward to the catharsis whatever the outcome. What is certain is that America’s change-averse foreign policy establishment won’t find anything cathartic about it at all.