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Beyond the Brexit issue

Note IVERIS - 18 février, 2016
Hajnalka Vincze

In 1975, at the time of the first British referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave or remain in what was then the European Communities, a caricature of the Canard enchaîné depicted Prime Minister Harold Wilson in bed on a voluptuous, but visibly bored Europa who pleads: “In or out, my dear Wilson, but stop this ridiculous back and forth.”[1] It was more than forty years ago ... Four decades during which the UK has carefully kept their notoriously “semi-detached position” vis-a-vis Europe.

Throughout the first half of 2016, Brussels and the capitals, including Washington on the outside, were mobilized to prevent the ultimate departure of this partner/faithful ally. Except that as a partner, the UK had always had the aim of distorting – i.e. de-politicizing and liberalizing – the European project, and that as an ally it has only been faithful to its American protector/friend. From this point of view, the Brits can leave with their minds quiet: the enlarged Europe they had succeeded in shaping in their own image is recklessly ultra-liberal and senselessly Atlanticist.

Yet, the orientation thus taken is so blatantly against Europe’s own interests that British elites, duly encouraged by like-minded friends in the US, has always considered that, to perpetuate it, constant UK presence was needed. In a sense, this was the price to be paid to prevent Europe from being under French influence. In the economic sphere, as Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, explained to British parliamentarians: the UK stepping back might “force the Germans to work much more closely with the French, faute de mieux, and there is a risk that the Germans will become less free trade oriented”.[2]

On the transatlantic side, US senior officials' interventions in favor of the status quo, culminating with President Obama's visit to London just before the referendum, speak volumes about the importance of Britain as a Trojan horse. Seen from Washington, it has always been crucial to prevent Europe from gaining too much autonomy (a direction traditionally advocated, once again, by the French diplomacy). According to the US President, British presence in the EU “gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union”.[3] A union in which the whole of Europe is supposed to be complementary but not autonomous of America, just like the United Kingdom.

The major upshot of Brexit could be precisely a clear clash between these two, French and British, visions of Europe, what then-Prime minister, now Commission President, Juncker once called the “two opposing philosophies”.[4] Most importantly, such a clarification between visions should bring to the fore the impossibility of an “entente” at the level of the entire Union, therefore the need to make space for a core group of countries wishing to go “faster and further” in the process of integration. A path advocated by French diplomacy, over the past quarter of century, under various labels for “differentiation”: concentric circles, avant-garde or hard core.[5]

Outgoing French President François Hollande also spoke of “the Europe of resolve” (a concept formerly known as Europe-puissance, meaning Europe acting as a political-strategic force multiplier for its participants), as opposed to “the Europe of dilution” (also known as “supermarket Europe”, a mere free-trade area that would strategically be an appendage of America).[6] However, it remains to be seen whether, at the time of clarification, there will be anyone left in the camp of “political Europe”. Does France still really want a Europe-power that assumes both its geopolitical independence and its own cultural, social and economic model? Or has the UK’s vetoing presence mostly been used as an alibi to conceal the abandonment of strategic ambitions everywhere?


[1] Quoted by Chris Patten, Churchill Lecture, Guildhall, London, 30 April 2002.
[2] Charles Grant, Oral Evidence before the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, 10 July 2012.
[3] Obama urges UK to stay in European Union, BBC, 24 July 2015.
[4] Europe divided by two opposing philosophies, EUObserver, 18 June 2005.
[5] For more on this subject, see the author’s paper on “Becoming flexible to keep it together: the logic and the pitfalls behind the concept of differentiated integration”, in The Federalist, XLVIII, 2006, N° 1.
[6] François Hollande, L'Europe que je veux, Tribune dans Le Monde, 8 mai 2014. For an analysis of the French President’s vision, see the author’s paper : L’Europe du Président Hollande,, 14 mai 2014.



brexit, royaume-uni, ue

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