The European continent is covered by a complex web of intricate mechanisms between states and organisations, many with overlapping membership.
If the UK leaves the EU it will nonetheless remain a founder member of the Council of Europe (whose 1949 Statute declares the need for ‘a closer unity between all like-minded countries of Europe’) and a founder member of NATO.
And the UK will certainly not be removing itself entirely from its relationship with the EU. As the detail of the draft withdrawal agreement already illustrates, the UK will be swapping one set of complex relations with the EU and its member states for another.
There will still be the interdependence that such relations bring, from trade to scientific research, from energy to climate change. This will remain true, whatever the final detail of the future relationship, if and once it has been negotiated.
The UK has always hovered on and about the perimeter of the EU version of the European integration process, and over the 45 years of its membership there have been difficult periods in the relationship.
Significant low points include ‘Black Wednesday’ (1992), when the UK government was unable to keep the pound above its agreed lower level and was forced to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism; John Major’s 1996 policy of non-cooperation in the wake of the BSE crisis; and David Cameron’s 2011 veto of a proposed fiscal compact to shore up the euro.
There were highs as well: Margaret Thatcher’s championing of the 1986 Single Market project, Tony Blair’s (albeit ill-fated) 1997 commitment to the single currency and the 2005 Blair-inspired informal European summit at Hampton Court, when a pro-active UK presidency generated a raft of positive reform proposals (on, for example, energy policy and climate change).
Cumulatively, the UK has given the impression of being semi-detached.
But, with the benefit of hindsight, historians will probably identify the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall as the critical turning point for the UK/EU relationship. French strategic diplomacy saw economic and monetary union (EMU) as the quid pro quo for German unification.
The UK’s counter-proposal of a parallel currency never won support. Instead, John Major won a unilateral opt-out which, in 1992, with a Union of just twelve member states and the Maastricht Treaty’s EMU provisions looking over-ambitious, must have seemed like a good rear-guard defensive bet.
But the 1995, 2004 and 2007 enlargements added a mass of new member states which were committed to respecting the Maastricht convergence criteria and adopting the euro when they could (Britain, always a major proponent of enlargement, seemed not to have foreseen this consequence).
Much later, having made a manifesto commitment to a referendum, David Cameron set about negotiating a new settlement for the UK.
The settlement, which fell with the June 2016 referendum result was, as Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK permanent representative to the EU has recently described it, ‘the last attempt to amplify and entrench British exceptionalism within the EU legal order.’
This episode illustrated once again the lengths to which the EU was prepared to go to accommodate the UK and acknowledge its exceptional status. But it is a moot point as to whether that exceptionalism could have continued indefinitely.
Perhaps, in the longer run, the UK would have been faced with a binary choice – either joining the currency union, or leaving the EU.
Space precludes more detailed coverage of all aspects of the complex web, but some of the more notable recent developments include the EU’s 2017 Global Strategy for the its Foreign and Security Policy, the EU’s 2017 integrated policy for the Arctic region (a perimeter directly involving three EU member states – Denmark, Finland, Sweden – but also the EFTA/EEA states, Iceland and Norway) and the 2017 Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in security and defence, involving 25 of the current 28 EU member states (excluding Denmark, Malta and the UK).
Analysing relations with the Russian Federation which, like Turkey, has most of its landmass in Asia, would also require more space than is available here.
But from the foregoing it can be seen that this web effectively covers the whole European continent and, even if the direction of relative travel may change in some respects – the UK leaving the EU, Turkey drifting away from accession – the general trend is towards ever-closer integration.
Specific dynamics internal to the continent are encouraging this trend – economic integration, energy, migration. But external dynamics loom ever-larger. David Cameron aptly summed up the challenge in his 2013 Bloomberg speech:
“The challenges come not from within this continent but outside it. From the surging economies in the East and South. Of course, a growing world economy benefits us all, but we should be in no doubt that a new global race of nations is underway today. A race for the wealth and jobs of the future. The map of global influence is changing before our eyes.”
The challenge from the east – particularly China’s burgeoning economy and geopolitical influence, but also the Indian and other Asian economies – is already the subject of much concern. The challenge from the south is only now beginning to emerge into public consciousness.
It can be illustrated through simple demographic statistics. In 1950, Germany, Italy and the UK were among the ten most populous countries in the world. By 2015, they had long since gone, replaced by the likes of Brazil, Pakistan and Nigeria.
By 2100, five of the ten most populous countries in the world will come from the African continent – Congo, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania (the others will be China, India, Indonesia, the USA and Pakistan).
It is this stark prospect that led European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to declare in his September 2018 State of the Union address:
“Africa is the future: By 2050, Africa’s population will number 2.5 billion. One in four people on earth will be African. … Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And Europe needs this partnership just as much.”
Seen from these perspectives, the Brexit process is a distraction, a diversion, albeit painful and traumatic, but one that will almost certainly be subsumed in the overall trend towards greater integration. For the only way Europe can continue to punch its weight in the world is by pulling together.
It was no idle boast when Juncker declared in the same speech that the EU’s “global trading position is the living proof of the need to share sovereignty. The EU now has trade agreements with 70 countries around the world, covering 40% of the world’s GDP.”
The EU is, as Sir Ivan Rogers put it in an earlier speech, ‘a regulatory and trade giant.’ As the Union seeks to embrace the whole African continent in a trading partnership it would be a great irony if the mercantilist UK were to deny itself the trading opportunities such a partnership would create and which it would probably be unable to negotiate on its own.
In any case, taking the longer-term view, the UK may become more or less semi-detached but, in one way or another, it will remain attached to the European continent’s only viable survival strategy in a rapidly evolving world.