Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Is there a European alternative to the Brussels project?
An 'outer ring' of European states could pursue looser integration and have collective clout
If the UK is truly heading towards an 'in or out' referendum on EU membership, thoughts must be turning quickly towards what alternative model the UK-Europe relationship might follow. The options are not straightforward.
One common retort from British Eurosceptics is 'look at Norway', but that option is not as great as it may look at first glance. A Norwegian local politician I met a couple of years back lamented her country's unwillingness to join the EU, saying that Norway has to implement 95% of EU legislation, with a 0% say about what goes into it. They do have control over their fishing industry, but many aspects of their lives come under the remit of EU directives that no Norwegian had a hand in drafting. Iceland also has this deal but has now decided to seek full EU membership instead.
Very few who truly understand the issues think that Britain can simply have no form of economic integration with the EU, and even Nigel Farage's language has become more nuanced during his time in Brussels. If Britain, for example, was to leave the EU, but desire to continue to participate in the single market, it would have to accept something similar to the EEA deal. Switzerland, on the other hand, has a series of bilateral opt-ins and opt-outs of EU policies, but on many issues it is captive to the regime that surrounds it.
'Tory Euroscepticism' may be the driving force behind Cameron's decision, but British Eurosceptics are not a homogeneous group. There are the rabid 'bent banana' Eurosceptics who ignore the geographical reality of where our island sits, and for whom there is no distinction between EU migrant workers and illegal immigrants from elsewhere in the world, and who conveniently ignore the hundreds of thousands of Brits residing in other EU states. There are still some with delusions about the UK's potential global role, or farcical ideas that Americans, Australians or Indians would be 'delighted' to open up to preferential economic agreements with the UK. There is the frequently-coined argument that when Britain voted in the 1970's it voted to join an economic union, not a political one, but a look at the founding treaties of the EU makes clear that it was all along a politically-coloured project.
Then there are quite reasonable arguments made about the democratic deficit in the EU's institutions. There is also the technical constitutional argument, which relatively few mention but which holds some water, about the incompatibility of the EU's system with the British system, that the British constitutional principle that 'no parliament can bind its successor' is broken by the signing of European treaties. That explains how figures on the left such as Tony Benn came to be part of British Euroscepticism.
So Britain, Norway, and Switzerland might all have reasons to be less than satisfied with their position, but they are not alone in feeling that their deals with Brussels are in some way unsatisfactory. Across Europe, on the eastern frontier, we have Turkey, the candidate country which may never join, which so far has only a customs agreement with the EU which is of limited value. Then there is Ukraine, which may or may not one day get round to signing a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade agreement with the EU, but whose problems with democracy and the rule of law may leave it self-excluded. Georgia, Moldova and Armenia are all in the process of agreeing similar free trade deals with Europe, and the DCFTA model may be what Turkey eventually has to settle for, if it doesn't decide that a sub-optimal relationship with Europe does not outweigh the benefits of a multi-vector trade policy, given its geographical position and robust pre-crisis economic growth.
During European debates in the UK, going back to the 1990's, the phrase 'two-speed Europe' frequently came up, implying that France, Germany, Benelux, Spain, Italy etc. could push ahead with closer integration whilst, for example, Britain and the Nordic countries could take a slower approach. Only in one sense has this clearly manifested itself, but notably, in the EU states that did not choose to adopt the Euro. One might also sense that one or two newer EU members, longer term, might not desire the closest level of integration with other member states. Would Poland, for example, ever really want to end up in political union with Germany?
So, if Britain is twitchy, Norway disadvantaged, Turkey rejected and Ukraine self-excluded, not to mention Switzerland and Iceland in Europe but not the EU, should these countries think about getting together in some kind of trade organisation, which could collectively lobby Brussels? If the EU had a rival club of 8-10 countries with which it had to agree single market conditions, might those countries together have real influence? In the longer term, such a consortium might be able to get Israel or Russia/Belarus/Kazakhstan on board (in a post-Putin epoch) and then you are talking about a rival group with tremendous clout. After all, if all these countries are either unhappy being under the EU's thumb, or given the cold shoulder by it, doesn't it make sense to look at other options? A looser organisation might also be able to more effectively involve Europe's southern neighbourhood.
There would be nothing to stop the group of non-EU members here (to list, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro) to sit down and discuss common interests and possible future co-operation. This is admittedly just an idea and hasn't been fully thought through, but perhaps not all roads in Europe lead to Brussels (?).
I'll freely admit that this is a rehash of a 2011 article on the same blog. The relevance of the issue persists.