Wolfgang Kaden: Britain and the EU. The Failure of a Forced Marriage

Wolfgang Kaden, Der Spiegel 12/10/2011 [extracts]

It was to be expected. And now it’s official: The British have elected not to join the treaty governing Europe’s new financial system.

But from the very beginning, Great Britain’s participation in a united Europe was a misunderstanding. When the EU was founded, the British still hadn’t finished mourning over their lost empire. Europe seemed far away and Continental efforts at unification were seen by many among the British elite as little more than naïve idealism.

ProEuropa17Despite such doubts, the EU became a reality, and a success — and it was economic realities that ultimately led London to join. Companies in the UK pushed the government toward Brussels because staying away was far too risky economically.

Still, the political classes in Britain never fully shared the Continental conviction that the European Union was an absolute political necessity following two destructive world wars in the 20th century. They never fully believed that Europe had to grow together, despite all the cultural, linguistic and societal differences.

In the 1960s, the empire was history, with one colony after the other declaring independence. But instead of turning toward Europe, Britain looked west to the US. And to this day, the UK feels much closer to America than it does to the frogs and the krauts on the other side of the English Channel.

In Brussels, which has for decades been depicted in the British press as little more than a bureaucratic monster, London has mostly played but a single role from the very beginning: that of a spanner in the works. There has hardly been a decision aimed at greater European integration that Britain hasn’t sought to block. And it was a role that even brought financial benefits. Ever since Margaret Thatcher famously demanded “I want my money back,” Britain has had to contribute less to the EU than the size of its economy would otherwise require.

To avoid misunderstandings, it is important to note that Britain is a fabulous country, as are its people. Their finely honed humor, tolerance, composure, language, culture and, yes, their worldliness are all to be praised and envied.

But the UK and the EU was a source of frustration for decades. In the long term, a member cannot demand all of the benefits of a community while refusing to shoulder its share of the burdens. One can’t constantly seek to thwart all efforts at greater European integration while at the same time demanding a say in all decisions.

Though that hardly kept them from acting at EU summits as though they had long since introduced the euro. At the summit before last, in fact, Sarkozy even lost his cool, telling Cameron “you missed a good opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” The French president continued: “We are sick of you criticizing us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”

Now, finally, there is a clear line of separation. There will certainly be a debate on how a divided Europe should continue. But that doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. Such a debate has been necessary for a long time and conflicts can not always be avoided. Sometimes, a bit of bickering is necessary to create clarity. The questions for Britain, however, are equally difficult. What exactly is the country’s role in the EU? British historian Timothy Garton Ash, a critic of the euro-skeptic course followed by the Cameron administration, said recently in an interview with SPIEGEL: “If the euro zone is saved, there will be a fiscal union, which means a political union of the euro countries…. Then, in the next two, three or four years, we in Great Britain will face the final question: in or out?”

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