For a passionate Anglophile, the prospect of the UK leaving the EU is a disaster. A disaster for Europe, but also for Britain itself. In a world in which ther European continent is being slowly marginalized, a union without Britain would be paralyzed down one side. This certainly holds for the Americans, because even though the “special relationship” may no longer exist, London is not a European capital like any other.
It also holds for a vast swath of the world from the Gulf to New Delhi, for which European influence is historically identical to British presence. It also holds for China, who is counting “economic divisions” the way fomer Russian dictator Josef Stalin counted military ones, and for whom an EU amputated like this would be seriously weakened.
However, it is not just about Britain’s global strategic presence. The EU needs the UK as a tireless advocate of the free market and of competition with member states — France first and foremost — that have less of a market culture, while remaining subject to protectionist and mercantilist temptations. Last, in a world where the values of freedom and democracy are the order of the day, for Europe even more than for the US, the absence of “the land of habeas corpus” would be an unfortunate symbol.
However, even without the UK, Europe will keep on going. Without Europe, on the other hand, the UK will be in a dead end. Since joining the EU, Britain has pursued a very skilful policy toward Brussels: It has benefited from the single market, reduced its budgetary contribution without having convincingly explained why and perfected the art of “opt-outs.” In terms of European policy, these are the equivalent of “warrants” on the financial markets — the chance of profiting from an opportunity without paying the full price. Why would the leaders of Britain, so famed for its tradition of common sense and empiricism, abandon a strategy that suits them so well in favor of a more ideology-based approach? How can they imagine that a UK liberal and open to globalization would be to Europe what Hong Kong is to China?
Continental Europeans are not altar boys. Can anyone really imagine they are going to let the most profitable activities stay solely within London, and allow the City (financial sector) to remain the financial capital of the euro without Britain sharing the rights and duties of the EU?
Today, ambiguity is the mainstay of the City: the continentals might well put up with the capital of the euro being outside the eurozone, but still in the EU. They will not — politically, economically or financially — accept it being outside the EU. There is no point trying to imagine the UK being treated like Norway or Switzerland, keeping all the advantages of the single market. You grant advantages to countries you hope will one day join the gang, not to a country that has just slammed the door in your face.
Let the British be under no illusions. It is not the French who will be most aggressive about this, but the Germans. The French will still be attached to the idea of maintaining a little counterbalance with regard to Berlin; the Germans will continue on their well-trodden path of reason and power, albeit somewhat tempered. Without the UK — a traditional brake on strengthening EU institutions — the onward march will resume more easily, and the eurozone, soon to be widened to include Poland, will integrate more quickly and become the de facto Europe, excluding two or three member states.
With a “continental blockade” across the English Channel, commercial agreements between London and Brussels will not be easy to negotiate — which way will the UK look? Toward the US? However, US President Barack Obama sees the Europeans, the British included, the way we Europeans see the Swiss: slightly weary rich friends who do not create any problems for you, but do not bring you any solutions either. What is the point of a UK back in splendid isolation when its preoccupations were Chinese, Asian and Pakistani? What weight will an isolated country of 65 million people carry in the eyes of the Chinese, or even the Indians?
The wager of the British Euroskeptics is based on a double premise: taking advantage of the single market and the euro while remaining outside it; and being a “hub” of a globalized economic space. The first premise assumes the continentals being conciliatory, when they will be acrimonious.
The second confuses London and the UK. Even if London maintains the extraordinary status it has invented for itself, which makes it the capital of the non-US world, it is not enough to ensure a good standard of living in the Midlands (central England), Wales or Scotland.
What can we call a fatal error in history? An irreversible decision based on a mistaken diagnosis with incalculable consequences. Which this would be.
Alain Minc was an adviser to Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy