PhD Candidate at King’s College London
A year ago I wrote on the Annual Lecture Lady Justice Arden gave on proportionality. This year I had the pleasure of attending the UK Association of European Law (UKAEL)’s Annual Lecture chaired by Prof. Sir Francis Jacobs (President, soon to be succeeded by Prof. Sir Alan Dashwood) and presented by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the previous British Ambassador to the United States and British Permanent Representative to the EU. Needless to say, his ex-civil servant status under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office held him in good steed to be discussing the relevant pros and cons of Britain remaining a EU Member State (MS) in light of the proposed referendum by the Conservative Party (should they remain in government come 2017).
Sir Nigel began with the caveat that his background was not in law therefore the talk would be on Europe, as opposed to European law. For a European law researcher, this political aspect was a refreshing break from the convoluted doctrinal analysis that takes up most of a legal researcher’s time. He explained that whilst recognising the Britain-Europe discussion was not novel, the stage the discussion is reaching now is becoming more so. The EU is changing, and these changes are affecting British membership. Sir Nigel broke his argument down into first discussing British exceptionalism, the changes the EU is facing, the international reaction to the UK and his conclusions on British membership of the EU.
The main event that Britain found itself lucky to have escaped was the Eurocrisis. It had always been “stubbornly negative” about the EU, but the choices made in regards to opting out of the single currency seemed to bear fruit in terms of escaping the main crisis befalling the EU at present. Its strong sense of Parliamentary sovereignty as well as common law traditions in Britain were two reasons it opted out to begin with.
However, Britain did sign up to membership of the EU for a good reason. Sir Nigel cites Dean Acherson, ex-US Secretary of State, and his lesser known quote about the UK’s roles in both the USA and commonwealth nations. He stated that in both areas, the UK’s role was “about played out.” It would seem that the EU would have been the best next course for the UK, remaining in the mainstream but negotiating special arrangements for themselves considering their relative uncertainty at the outset. Membership was thus “conditional”. Modern EU conditions should seem more acceptable to the UK now, however, one must nonetheless tread lightly given the changes it is undergoing presently.
Changes in the EU
As mentioned, the Eurocrisis is the most obvious change the EU has gone through, which has severely impacted many opinions in the UK as to the value of the remaining in the EU. There is a close relationship between monetary integration, democratic legitimacy and national Member State control, rendering upholding the Eurozone and single market a more difficult task. Sir Nigel toyed with the idea that perhaps now it is not credible to be excluded from the euro given the solidarity demonstrated therein. However, the Eurocrisis left a bad impression on the UK. The EU will have to do the most they can to stabilise the crisis, with efforts focused there rather than with any other issues the UK has prioritised. Being excluded from these crucial tasks and discussions will have the negative effect of widening gap between the UK and its allies.
He also argues that it is unclear if eurosceptics have reflected the population’s sentiments accurately, leading onto the international reaction to the UK’s apparent disdain. Clearly, given the changes the EU is undergoing, stakes are higher if Britain decides to withdraw. However, the more important issue remains that the potential is more real now of this withdrawal. Interestingly, for governments in the Eurozone, survival is most important. The risk of withdrawal of the UK is peripheral in comparison. However, there is still time before this exit is decided with both European Parliament and UK elections a way off. Sir Nigel highlights that the EU may want to consider certain reforms, with the Working Time Directive and tougher action on benefit fraud given the growth of free movement of persons among his suggestions. However, convening an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) which would be necessary to make the changes the UK so desperately wants, cannot feasibly be done in the time before the referendum.
International Reaction to the UK
The most poignant reaction comes from President Obama of the USA, and his piece of advice to David Cameron as to the UK’s membership, stating that it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU. Similarly, the Australian government wrote to William Hague, Foreign Secretary of the UK, on this very topic on February 14 also urging reconsidering leaving the EU. These strong sentiments came off the back of David Cameron’s own speech on January 23 where he asserted that the EU was to ‘secure prosperity’ and that there should be a maintained role for the UK. Additionally Sir Nigel emphasised that the Japanese memo to the UK reviewing the UK’s balance of competence between itself and the EU also strongly discouraged leaving, for it would negatively affect the Japanese’s entry to the EU market. Germany has begun to overtake the UK in being the key location for new inward investment projects especially from Japan, thereby incentivising the UK to consider remaining in the EU for trade reasons.
Value of British Membership to the EU
If these compelling arguments in terms of the international reaction were not enough, Sir Nigel continued on to state his position believing in the benefits of the UK remaining the EU. Though quality of membership would diminish as the euro diminishes in importance, many other areas would remain unchanged. The single currency is but one of the EU’s projects. He described it as a long and winding road. The Eurocrisis may accelerate, but otherwise development in the EU will benefit the UK. The arguments to stay in are compelling and even on a business level, institutions such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) agree that withdrawal would be detrimental. Exports to the EU are even larger than those of growing emergent economies.
Sir Nigel thus emphatically put his position across that the UK should remain in the EU, and whilst the old debate has seen certain quite significant changes, the position – both in terms of the UK’s membership and one’s opinion as to the benefits of the UK’s membership – should remain unchanged.