Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, recently warned that a referendum held by the United Kingdom on whether or not to stay in the European Union “would be a risky distraction that could demote the U.K. to a parochial bystander in world affairs.” In other words, it would hurt the United Kingdom’s global image. “I passionately believe,” Mr. Blair stated, “that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously, but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation.” Mr. Blair’s comment arise amid a decades-long debate on the United Kingdom’s future with the European Union, one that is gathering increasing attention as the United Kingdom is due for parliamentary elections this coming May.
David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, promised he would hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017 if he won the May 7th elections. The economic difficulties that have plagued the eurozone since the global recession of 2008 are the major impetus behind Mr. Cameron’s promise. He declared that the British people should have a say in the United Kingdom’s future with the European Union, trying to present the referendum in an altruistic light. He “seeks to persuade other EU leaders of the need for Brussels to cede more power to national parliaments” and feels the recent electoral success of right-wing parties opposed to further integration proves his case. He, therefore, wants a European Union “dedicated to free trade and competitiveness, a “leaner, less bureaucratic union.” Mr. Cameron insists that “democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin,” nonetheless, he is calling the referendum for the sole purpose of saving his political reputation.
There has long been a dynamic debate over the future of the United Kingdom in the European Union. The U.K. was greeted in a less than enthusiastic manner from the European Union, especially France, when it first showed interest in joining. In 1973, however, Britain became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). At that time, it was the Conservative Party that most favored European integration while the Labour Party, conversely, was opposed to membership due to charges that “Brussels was too market-friendly.” Despite the debate, during the 1990s, Conservative Prime Minister John Major was able to negotiate a special relationship for the United Kingdom, one that allowed the U.K. to opt out of the common currency but yet still retain full EU membership. Thus, the British relationship with Europe “is much more like a loveless arranged marriage,” one that is necessary for success, but also a relationship that the United Kingdom has clearly shown it could do without. Today, the United Kingdom’s central parties have switched places with their view about the relationship with the United Kingdom. The Labour Party, now the more Europhile party, is more in favor of staying in the EU. The Conservative Party under David Cameron, which can be described as more eurosceptic, wants to regain some of the national powers that were surrendered to the European Union.
The future of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union is uncertain; however, it would not be in Britain’s best interest to cease its membership. The idea that “the United Kingdom would be better off outside the EU is misguided.” On the global level, leaving the European Union would hurt Britain’s “global standing” and it would make the former great empire look weak and indecisive. It also makes the United Kingdom look like a xenophobic, anti-immigrant establishment as one of the main grievances the U.K. has with further European integration is its concern about immigration into its country. The European Union is too tied up in Britain’s identity, begging the question what the United Kingdom would look like without its membership in the European Union?
While the U.K. may have already lost some of its global superpower status, it remains one of the strongest countries in Europe and continues to carry significant clout. At the regional level, leaving the EU would mean the United Kingdom loses “all influence on European economic policymaking.” It also angers the other EU countries. The French and other countries have told Mr. Cameron that he cannot “cherry-pick” what parts of the EU he wants to participate in and from which he wishes to abstain. These countries argue that Britain “risk[s] unraveling the union to suit British interests” and they begrudge the United Kingdom for using its possible exit as a bargaining chip. The European leaders contend that Britain needs to make up its mind – does it want to maintain membership or does it want to exit the Union entirely? The European Union has made concessions to entice the U.K. into membership; the country enjoys full rights but was not forced to join the common currency. Thus, the EU has made exceptions for the United Kingdom as it was viewed on both sides that membership would ultimately be in the interest of both entities. The United Kingdom, then, would be wise, when faced with a referendum in 2017, to remain a member of the European Union and to increase its level of engagement. The referendum, as promised by Mr. Cameron could prove detrimental to the United Kingdom’s future.