In this year’s first edition of the Beaver, editor Alan Locke argued that the EU had “shown its true colours”, due to its pushing for further military integration and completion of the Eurozone, whilst simultaneously showing intent to punish Great Britain for Brexit. In his view, these developments give credibility to Brexit voters, confirming the fears of further integration and proving the malign intent on behalf of the EU. He is certainly not alone in this view. Indeed, for anyone seeking to make a post-factum Brexit-apology, this line of reasoning might seem compelling. However, rather than pointing towards the EU in order to explain the Brexit vote, it would be advisable to reflect on the role of Great Britain’s political elites.
For correct understanding of the recent proposals for enhanced integration it is crucial to grasp that they were already envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, as well as in earlier instruments. Instruments, moreover, that Great Britain had signed and ratified, but that have – apparently – not been properly explained to the population of Great Britain.
Ideas of military cooperation were central to early European integration. In 1954, only a slight majority in the French National Assembly voted against the creation of the European Defence Community, which would have established “common institutions, command armed forces and common budget.” Ever since, the aims for defence cooperation have been more modest. This was partly due to strong opposition on behalf of the UK. It was only after Tony Blair agreed to closer defence cooperation in the famous St. Malo declaration of 1998 that the way was paved for the EU’s current Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
The recent establishment of the Military Planning and Conduct Capacity and proposals for increased defence cooperation must been seen in the light of this policy. Relevant provisions of the EU treaties expressly mention that it will include “the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy”, which “will lead to a common defence” (by unanimous decision of the heads of states). Of course, now that the UK no longer forms an obstacle, there will be more opportunities to develop common defence policies. Nonetheless, throughout the existence of the European project, military integration was always on the table.
Equally, further integration and the ultimate adaptation of the euro by all members of the European Union has always been part of the deal. Through the ratification of the Maastricht treaty of 1992, all Member States of the European Union have the obligation to introduce the euro. In his recent State of the Union, Juncker solely reiterated this already existing obligation: the euro really is destined to become the common currency of the EU. The United Kingdom, however, secured an opt-out from the single currency, and was never legally bound to give up the pound.
The idea that the EU wants to punish the UK for the Brexit is also misguided. In Great Britain there is a widespread belief that the UK will be able to strike a good deal, because this is in the economic interest of the individual EU member states. This belief, however, does not take into account that there are more fundamental interests at stake: namely the integrity of the European Union itself. The EU is a supranational organisation still consisting of 28 Members States, who together have created a single market economy. The idea of a single market is rather simple: all countries apply the same rules, harmonise their laws or recognise each other’s national standards. This system only works if countries are not allowed to cherry-pick, for the logic of the single market requires all countries accepting the same rules.
No EU country has an interest in providing the UK with a deal that would allow cherry picking, i.e. having the advantages of the single market, without being a part of it and bearing its costs. Therefore the EU-27 have consistently held that the four freedoms are a package deal. They cannot be obtained seperately, because the integrity of the internal market triumphs all other considerations. After all, if the UK can secure a sweet deal, other countries would soon follow the its example, which would be the end of the single market as such.
Let’s take Germany as an example: it might be the case that Germany has a trade surplus of £24 billion with the United Kingdom and therefore has an interest in keeping smooth access to the UK’s market. At the same time, Germany’s trade surplus with the rest of the EU is a multiple of that number. It should therefore be noted that even representatives of the German car industry (an industry that exports heavily to the UK) unequivocally embraced the priority of the integrity of the European single market over all other considerations. It is time for the UK to grasp this logic. It is not about punishment, but about a crucial principle of European integration.
Brexit is Brexit, but mostly it is a problem of the United Kingdom. Its cause can be ascribed to political elites unwilling to grant a realistic and honest portrait of the European Union, its benefits and its costs. Now it is time to face the fact that the UK has chosen to leave the world’s biggest single market, without realising it is impossible to “have your cake and eat it too”. The unwillingness in the UK to do so is worrisome, but the EU cannot be blamed for that.