Perhaps they’d better go

Essay The United Kingdom always had one leg in the EU and one outside. That served a purpose: they saw things that the Dutch or French wouldn’t notice, Caroline de Gruyter writes. But they couldn’t get out of that outsider role anymore. Now many in Brussels want them to go.

Pro-Europe campaigners during the referendum in 1975 about the UK's continued membership of the European Economic Community.
Pro-Europe campaigners during the referendum in 1975 about the UK's continued membership of the European Economic Community. Photo Getty Images

This is not a bad week for Bremainers. With Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU voted down in the House of Commons, the door remains open to a second referendum, a cancellation of Article 50, or simply a prolonged failure to exit. Anti-Brexiteers in the United Kingdom and other European countries are full of hope again. European President Donald Tusk has already alluded to this possibility recently: „If No Deal is possible, and nobody wants a Do Deal, who will have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

But the question arises: would a Bremain, or a Breturn as some call it, be possible? Would the UK be able to function as an EU member state, once again, as if nothing happened?

This is doubtful.

Anyone who has followed British politics and policies in Europe over the years, and anyone who has seen the British operating in Brussels over a long time, knows that the Brexit vote wasn’t exactly a surprise. It was preceded by a long, mental process. London’s political and administrative elite has been checking out of the EU for many years.

No one has articulated this mental ‘check-out’ better than the former British ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers. He once said: „Since we joined the EU in 1973, we have held up mirrors to other Europeans in Brussels. We loved that role. We loved showing them what went wrong in Europe and why, and how things could be done differently. Holding up the mirror was one of our great pleasures. So much so, that we couldn’t get out of that role anymore. We became the mirror.”

Sir Ivan is right: the mirror function is a good metaphor for the long road to Brexit. The UK’s departure will be a big loss for the 27 remaining countries. They will miss that mirror badly. At official discussions, informal exchanges or Saturday dinners in Brussels with friends - it was often the British at the table who came up with that one striking comment that the others chewed on afterwards for days. When a Briton spoke, others often became quiet. They knew they’d probably hear things they themselves had not thought of. This is not because the British are smarter, but because they looked at European issues as outsiders. They saw things that the Dutch or French wouldn’t notice because they had a different position in the EU right from the start.

Brexit is the formalization of the British position as an outsider.

For example, during a discussion about populism in a small group of Europeans in 2012, a British participant said: „You Europeans are afraid of globalization. With us it’s the other way round: we are not afraid of globalization, we’re deeply Eurosceptic.”

During an evaluation of the 'Neighborhood Policy' - the EU policy for neighboring countries – at around the same time, a British participant bluntly offered this view: „We offered Libya cooperation if they accepted our gender values. But Libyans are not interested in gender values. So our policy failed. The Neighborhood Policy is a big disaster. We must bin this grandiose, naive program and go back to classic bilateral diplomacy.”

And once, during a conversation about the European budget, when everyone said predictable things - a Dutch participant wanted to trim agricultural subsidies, which of course the Frenchman opposed, etc - their British colleague said: „In the member states the Ministry of Finance always acts as a natural brake if the government wants to spend more money. The Finance Ministry always wants to spend less. Regrettably in Europe we do not have such an institution. So, we British take up that role.”

Such remarks kept other Europeans on their toes. It sharpened their thinking. At the same time, however, this already carried the seeds of Brexit. Former French MEP Jean-Louis Bourlanges once said that the British „have one leg inside the EU and one outside”. That has been true from the beginning. Brexit is the formalization of the British position as an outsider.

Take EU membership itself. Initially, in the 1950s, the UK did not want to join the European Community (the EU’s predecessor). This changed during the sixties, for two reasons. First, customs tariffs between Member States were abolished. Their economies grew fast. The UK, doing less well, wanted to share in this prosperity. Second, Member States were already discussing more integration, for instance in agriculture and defense. They even talked about a single currency already. London feared a powerful political block would emerge at its doorstep. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to join? As a member one could, after all, bend European plans in one’s own direction, or even torpedo them. That is why the UK, after two vetoes from General De Gaulle, finally joined in 1973. Edward Heath, a conservative, was prime minister.

In the British TV series Yes Minister, from the early 1980s, the director-general of the Foreign Office regularly reminds his minister of the two main reasons why the UK joined the EC: economic benefit; and the possibility to sabotage European political integration. In one episode, the director-general explains to the minister: „The Foreign Office is pro-Europe, because it is actually anti-Europe.”

Photo Getty Images

In 1974, just one year after joining, London already demanded a renegotiation. Labour had come to power. It was divided over membership, and wanted new conditions from Brussels. Just like in 2016 under Prime Minister Cameron, the UK achieved little. In 1975 a referendum was held about membership. So, the first-ever national referendum was already about Brexit. And, again like in 2016, part of the government campaigned against membership. But a two-thirds majority of the population voted to remain.

At the same time, many British felt uneasy with membership. „In other countries people were happy to join. They felt proud”, former Ambassador Ivan Rogers once said. „But for many of us, accession provoked a different sentiment: fear. This has gripped us since 1973.”

Margaret Thatcher's famous speech in Bruges in 1988 was already a clear call for a less political, more intergovernmental Europe. But many would rather see ‘Black Wednesday’ as the real turning point. Then, in September 1992, when the British government had to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. This gave the British economy an instant boost, and lead to renewed pleas for a British exit. Few Europeans took this seriously. After all, the UK was a heavyweight in the European Community. The internal market was shaped by a British Commissioner. Mrs. Thatcher had managed to lower the British contribution to the European budget - the famous rebate. She had also put further expansion of the EEC prominently on the agenda.

Most British citizens, however, were unaware of these British achievements in Europe. The press was utterly skeptical. No British government ever managed to set up a good, domestic debate on Europe. The UK was very good at holding up mirrors for the rest of Europe, but not for itselve. This is why Black Wednesday confirmed for many what they had already quietly thought for a while: we’re better off outside.

In that same year, 1992, the member states signed the Maastricht Treaty. The EEC became the EU, with more political ambition and integration, including Schengen and the euro. The UK refused to participate, and negotiated permanent opt-outs. From then on, the country had a different destination than the others. They took the route of ‘ever closer union’; the UK went in another direction. Since then, the country has mainly seen the EU as dead weight and as an unstoppable, outside interference.

In Brussels, everybody took notice. London often complained that it wasn’t consulted on the others’ political plans, even if it wanted nothing to do with it. It started battles on many fronts – against voting rights for prisoners, a minimum maternity leave, the Court of Justice, and even against European regulations that arose directly from disputes on the internal market. According to a former British official in Brussels: „After Maastricht our disaffection with Brussels started.”

Perhaps the UK itself should have looked in the mirror more often at that stage. No country fought harder for the big enlargement with ten new member states in 2004 than the UK, for example – yet afterwards no country complained louder about some of the consequences. London pushed enlargement for two reasons: to expand the single market, increasing profits for British companies; and to complicate decision-making in the EU with many more countries at the table.

Many in Brussels are quietly concluding that it is probably better if the UK leaves now

But London fell in its own sword. After enlargement many Eastern Europeans came to the UK; frustration about this eventually became one of the driving forces behind Brexit. The second effect was that the center of Europe moved further eastward after 2004 - somewhere between Munich and Vienna. This increased the British feeling of alienation: the UK was now dangling on the outer edge of the continent.

In the 2000s the UK noticeably started investing less money and energy in the EU. It had, for instance, an excellent training program preparing officials for postings in Brussels. As a result, British candidates were often better than others. They knew their files, spoke their languages and knew their way in Brussels. Many British obtained key positions at European institutions. Other member states were jealous of this ‘European Fast Stream’ program. But suddenly it was stopped. It was said that it had become too expensive. Stories also did the rounds about foreign policy working groups, where British officials used to be pro-active and well prepared. Suddenly London sent lower-ranked people who spent entire meetings just listening.

All the while, many British continued to hold up mirrors for other Europeans. But it became increasingly hard to discuss Europe with them: they seemed less eager to talk about the common story, focussing on themselves. The British position in Europe became the issue, not Europe itself. At times this could become a conversation killer. Once during a conversation about Spitzenkandidaten a Briton said that he didn’t care „whether those candidates end up in the mud or on Mars”. This was followed by a tirade about the European „conclusions graveyard”, caused by European leaders „who decide a lot but do very little”, adding that this had almost led to Brexit already a few times.

Meanwhile, in the European Parliament British MEPs began to suffer defeats. Ideology sometimes prevailed over the renowned British pragmatism. The departure of the Tories from the conservative European family, the EPP, is a good example. This happened under David Cameron, in 2009, before he became Prime Minister. The Conservatives joined a fringe group of Eurosceptic Poles and Czechs without much political clout. Suddenly much of the news was made by Nigel Farage, who called President Van Rompuy „a damp rag” and liked boozy lunches. Legislation, however, was not one of Farage’s strong points.

The remaining British commitment to the EU was flushed out by the euro crisis. The amateurism of most euro area leaders annoyed London. British expertise of haute finance was unwelcome in Brussels – after all, this was a political crisis, not a financial one. At briefings, British ministers and diplomats sounded as far away as the moon. President Van Rompuy, who chaired many crisis summits, later said that the British were not causing him a lot of trouble: „They were often not even part of the story.” London refused to take part in the European banking union or to subscribe to additional fiscal rules, while most other non-euro countries decided to join.

Photo Getty Images

Thus the British cut themselves out of the European picture, slowly but steadily. Last month former EU Ambassador Ivan Rogers said during a long hearing in the House of Commons that many of the instructions he received from London at the time were negative: block this, torpedo that. Now, ironically, the UK wants to take part in many projects he was ordered to block at the time - Galileo, for example, and European defence.

The British solved the banking crisis faster than euro countries. Often, British comments about Europe became sour and condescending. While the euro zone was stagnant at best, the British economy grew. The only continent with lower growth, sneered Brexiteer Boris Johnson, was Antarctica. And according to Slate the British felt „shackled to a corpse” – the corpse in question, of course, being the EU.

During the migration crisis, in 2015, the UK were at the sidelines again. Much of the discussion focused on Schengen, in which it does not take part. When EU countries renegotiated a European asylum policy in 2015, a British negotiator sourly commented that „the incontinence of European institutions must stop”.

Let us suppose the Remain camp had won the referendum in 2016. How long would the UK have lasted in the EU, before fresh demands for Brexit would resurface? Two years? Five, maybe? Moreover, in the midst of worldwide geopolitical turmoil the EU is changing from a technocratic organization into a more political one. It increasingly functions as a shelter for member states who prefer to sit out global storms together. Even countries who used to be rather eurosceptic increasingly see their future inside the bloc. This is quite an evolution from the transactional organization that the UK would want the EU to be. Many in Brussels are quietly concluding that it is probably better if the UK leaves now.

By now most British only see the EU through a national prism. Discussions about the EU are often derailed within a few minutes to discussions about Brexit. In London officials are less knowledgeable about Europe than before. Many civil servants who know Brussels and have contacts there are sidelined.

MPs advocate „solutions” that are politically or legally impossible. Prime Minister Theresa May, a Remainer, based her initial Brexit strategy on a misconception. She thought she could close the EU door behind her and then, from the outside, choose the programs that she wanted to participate in. Mrs. May was Interior Minister when European Justice cooperation started. She declined to participate - another pre-Brexit signal. But a little later, from the outside, she opted into a few forms of cooperation, such as the European search warrant.

The Prime Minister thought that the entire EU worked like this: that you could get out, and then partially opt yourself in again. She had once done it that way, and intended to do it again with Brexit. She didn’t realize that the decision-making process on Justice and Home Affairs is entirely different than, for instance, the internal market.

The internal market is not intergovernmental but dominated by EU rules. Decision making is also entirely different. Cherry-picking a few programs at leisure while ditching undesirable EU rules was not an option this time. It would have undermined the single market. It took May a while to understand that for this reason Britain’s nordic friends on the Continent objected to her proposals.

Ambassador Rogers, a fine connaisseur of Brussels, tried to warn the Prime Minister. He advised her to change course. She did not listen. As a result Rogers resigned in December 2016, six months after the Brexit vote. He is in high demand nowadays as a keynote speaker on Brexit at British universities and institutions. It is somehow telling about the long and sorry Brexit saga that he is not holding up his mirror for other Europeans any longer, but for his own fellow countrymen.

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for NRC. She spent 10 years in Brussels and is currently based in Oslo.

    • Caroline de Gruyter