Britain’s EU dilemma

Britain’s Conservative-led government wants to renegotiate its four decades-long membership of the European Union and repatriate powers from Brussels. Should he be reelected in 2015, says Prime Minister David Cameron, he would even put the new package to a popular referendum, no matter if that means a potential exit from the bloc. Its European allies, once angry over London’s intransigence on the common budget and the fiscal pact, are increasingly viewing the country’s future in Europe with near resignation. The United States has gone public with its opinion that its special relationship would be best served with Britain inside the EU. The current mood reflects greater unease in an always reluctant member state, especially with the imperatives of ever-deepening economic and political integration of the EU in response to the sovereign debt crisis. After all, Britain’s fundamental interest in EU membership has always been purely economic, unlike founder members Germany and France who see the EU as a political project created from the ruins of the Second World War. But the country would be denying itself the voice and influence to formulate policies to promote its national interests were London to relinquish full membership. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, for instance, are members of the European free trade association but have to play by the EU script.

British business, a core constituency of the Conservative party, is at a loss to understand the government’s position. While endorsing support for reform of the bloc’s budget and the single market, leading figures in industry have warned that an exit from the EU would hamper inward investment and growth. Britain’s crowning achievement since joining the EU has been its role in the establishment of the single European market. Its contribution to reinvent this process now would be vital given the setback suffered during the debt crisis. There are allies within and outside of the single currency zone who share similar concerns based on the liberal free-market model traditionally associated with Britain. Defying this economic logic of greater cooperation is the brand of eurosceptic politics of the conservatives. The party has been held hostage by backbenchers whose anti-European stance makes it almost indistinguishable from the anti-immigrant and xenophobic far-right U.K. Independence Party. Prevarication by the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, and the predominantly Europhobic press have kept the debate on EU membership banal. While the current generation of the Labour party may not be anti-European, fading memories of the war and the Holocaust means that commitment and enthusiasm are wanting.

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