The British problem and what it means for Europe

With the prospect of a referendum before 2017, a British Exit from the EU led by a Europhobic elite is a real possibility – with disasterous consequences

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With the prospect of a referendum before 2017, a British Exit from the EU is a real possibility. In ‘The British problem and what it means for Europe’, ECFR director Mark Leonard argues that:

  • The risk of Brexit is not driven by a Eurosceptic public but by a Europhobic elite that has conflated immigration with Europe. Britain’s Europhobes have a powerful intellectual framework, wealthy backers, and advocates in the media, the House of Commons, and even the Cabinet. But the rise of UKIP seems to be scaring many people: support for EU membership is at a five-year high (a recent poll showed 45 percent wanting to stay in compared to 35 percent who wanted to leave).
  • An EU without Britain would be smaller, poorer, and less influential on the world stage. The UK makes up nearly 12.5 percent of the EU’s population, 14.8 percent of its economy, and 19.4 percent of its exports (excluding intra-EU trade). Furthermore, it runs a trade deficit of £28 billion, is home to around two million other EU citizens, and remains one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget (responsible for 12 percent of the budget in total).

There are a lot of opportunities for other EU countries to help stop Brexit by persuading the British government to support general reforms rather than special pleading. Leonard argues that European Reform can help to delink the two and drive a wedge between the agnostic public and the Europhobic elite. In particular, he suggests that:

  • EU governments should persuade major companies that benefit from Britain’s presence in the single market – from Ikea and Findus to BMW and Deutsche Bank – to speak up about the economic risks of leaving. The public will take warnings from employers more seriously than statements from politicians.
  • EU leaders should work to break the link between migration and Euro-scepticism. As well as changing the rules on benefits, they should set up European migration adjustment fund in the EU budget to which local authorities can apply for supporting expanding public services for areas with large levels of intra-EU migration.
  • EU institutions should show how Britain could benefit from the reforms in the investment and the democratic agenda that are already planned. One idea is to link Jean-Claude Juncker’s €315 billion investment plan with the UK government’s ambitious plans for infrastructure investment.
  • EU member states should counter the image of the UK as isolated by engaging it in discussions from which they are currently excluded, and start a wider debate about variable geometry that could explore how the EU’s institutions can support the Eurozone while also re-assuring non-eurozone members.
  • There should be an explosion of contact from outside voices to the whole British political spectrum on the risks of life outside the EU. From Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Ed Milliband, Anne Hidalgo to Boris Johnson, or Radek Sidorski to John Bercow, outsiders can fight the political gulf between the inward-looking British political class and other countries.

 Mark Leonard says “A BREXIT could be even more damaging to the EU than a Grexit.  It could set off a cycle of disintegration and accelerate Europe’s decline on the world stage”.

“People have said Britain is sleepwalking out of Europe.  But the reality is different:a small europhobic elite is running towards the exit.  Like the neoconservatives who pushed for the US to invade Iraq, Britain’s Europhobes have a powerful intellectual framework, wealthy backers, and advocates in the media, the House of Commons, and even the Cabinet.

It is up to British citizens to decide if they want to stay, but the rest of the EU can help drive a wedge between the Europhobes and the public by reforming the EU to deal with the pressures of migration – and engaging Britain’s elite and society in a debate about European reform.” 

Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, says: I would deeply regret seeing Britain leave the EU. The Union benefits from a strong British voice and Britain benefits from a strong Union. Rather than taking rash decisions based on short-term calculations, in today’s world more than ever, we as Europeans need to come closer together. Recent foreign policy events and Britain’s role in them – or lack thereof – should advise caution as to its potential future role in world politics should it leave the EU.”

John Bruton, former Irish prime minister, says: “As well as diminishing the European Union in a dramatic way, Brexit would raise the possibility of customs and passport controls on the land border in Ireland, which would be deeply disruptive of the economy in both parts of the island. This paper is timely in that it explains the elite roots of English Europhobia. Creative thinking is needed in all 28 EU capitals on how to counter it.”

Carl Bildt, former prime minister and former foreign minister of Sweden, says: There is a certain amount of complacency in Brussels circles about the risks and consequences of a Brexit.  They would be fairly catastrophic.

First, it should be recognised that Brexit would be a  lengthy process with all of the budgetary and institutional ramifications. Then must come the negotiation over some sort of as yet defined alternative arrangement. The Norway or Swiss models are virtually impossible for a number of reasons. There might be a Ukraine model – DCFTA but no mobility and limited single market. 

Anyhow, and for all the obvious disadvantages of any such model, there is a risk that it would fuel similar sentiments in other countries. And it might well be in the interest of the UK government of the day to encourage such a development in order to somewhat mitigate the consequences of European isolation.  we might  end up sliding back into the 1958 divisions that resulted in the EEC/EFTA split. 

This would be disastrous not only in economic terms but also in our ability to handle the many challenges all around Europe, notably a Russia that some years from now might be either rising militarily or collapsing economically and socially – or possibly both. Only a reasonably united West, with a coherent EU as one of its key pillars, would have any chances of handling this. A fragmented Europe will be a weaker and more dangerous Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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