As Chancellor Angela Merkel tries to hold the European Union together in dealing with the turmoil around Greece, Cyprus, and Hungary flirting with Moscow amid the myriad other centrifugal forces pulling at Europe’s political, economic, and social fabric, she must also monitor alarming developments in the United Kingdom. Whoever becomes the prime minister after the May 7 elections will have a tough time steering through the domestic fabric of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There is even the question of whether the UK would remain in the EU after a proposed referendum in 2017 takes place. Over four decades after joining the great European project, the possibility that such a referendum could lead to a “Brexit” cannot be summarily dismissed. Less than a year ago, not many people outside of Scotland thought that the spirit of William Wallace would again emerge in the Scottish highlands. That spirit came very close to breaking up the UK in a referendum, which clearly has not yet settled the matter.
The internal British political debates leading up to the election are not unusual. They are driven by many of the same issues impacting the political atmosphere all over Europe and in the United States as well: immigration, economic turbulence, jobs, health care, and national debt, to name a few. Europeans are further afflicted by the surge of anti-EU sentiment fanned and fueled by political parties and movements on multiple fronts; the Greek government came to power as a “champion” of that sentiment. In the UK, the Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, wants a complete British exit from the EU, while protest parties elsewhere, such as the Alternative for Germany party, are lobbying against the powers in Brussels or the euro without demanding withdrawal from the EU altogether.
The current travails of Europe are not new. There has always been a tug of tension between the three main levels of the European Union—the member states, their respective populations, and the expanding Brussels infrastructure. The debate over the euro and how to secure its future and that of the EU will not be over for a long while. Nor will the process of molding now twenty- eight sovereign states, with more waiting to join the EU club, into a more encompassing union be quickly achieved. This is an effort that has no equal on the global stage. While it is not inconceivable that the EU could fail, it does seem more likely that the Union will continue to find a path forward as long as the process is seen as more than an end in itself.
The ability of UK citizens to define themselves on multiple levels—Scot, Welsh, English—with an expanding capacity over centuries to also encompass a British level of identity is illustrated by the current exhibition in London of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. A nation is in part a narrative its people tell about themselves. A core part of that UK narrative is the emphasis on the independent path of sovereignty and protection against all threats and dangers from abroad over centuries. The UK is indeed a member of the EU. But is it European à la France and Italy? The answer is part of the reason why the Brits did not want to use the euro and why others may want to withdraw—or at a minimum reduce the role of the EU in their lives.
And yet the benefits of being in the EU are substantial. Just ask the business community or the financial cadres in London City, which would stand to lose a significant chunk of GDP following a Brexit. That, in fact, was part of the reason why the Scottish referendum failed last year in light of the European business interests north of Hadrian’s Wall. But there is also another wrinkle coming out of the Scottish National Party’s platform these days, which suggests that any referendum on EU membership has to be carried out in all four parts of the UK to see just how much support there is beyond England’s hardliners in the Independence Party (UKIP).
In fact, that challenge of regulating immigration, so exploited by UKIP in its attacks on Brussels, is likely to be better chartered through an EU-wide approach, even as the UK is lobbying for tighter controls. Indeed, ask the thousands of British citizens who choose to live elsewhere in the EU about those benefits.
Likewise, the appeal of an EU-wide approach is clear to the security community. There are clear benefits to working together—versus isolation—when dealing with threats, be they from international terrorists or from Putin and his pack of nationalists, who send submarines around the UK coast or fly bombers nearby without transponders. Many noticed that EU appeal when Chancellor Merkel and French President Francois Holland were negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin—without inviting Prime Minister David Cameron.
And when it comes to the Anglo-German discussion about the EU, the efforts coming out of London to put up a fight over how much power Brussels should exercise over EU members is surely not all negative from Chancellor Merkel’s perspective. But then Downing Street is more influential inside the EU tent than out.
Finally, the U.S. interest in keeping the UK in the EU have traditionally run along similar lines, as long as there is sufficient synergy between London and Washington on certain economic and foreign policy issues. Yet that has involved a more fragile set of discussions recently, and the U.S. perception of declining UK defense capabilities is worrying others in NATO. In that connection, perhaps keeping the UK in the EU is another way of trying to encourage a stronger European defense posture, if that is actually feasible. Right now it seems that London is following a budget-driven defense policy instead of a defense policy-driven budget.
There used to be a standing joke about the alleged British newspaper headline stating, “Dense Fog in the Channel: Europe cut off.” There may be political fog moving through the UK in the next two years as it wrestles with its identity both in the EU and as a player on the global stage. That could be complicated further if the government in London is either a minority government or a fragile coalition. But perhaps the domestic debate about both internal challenges and dangerous developments beyond British borders will remind UK citizens that they are better off within a community of shared interests than on the island by themselves. With the marking of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on the day right after the elections, it might be food for thought.