Recent years have seen an increase in debates around the future of the UK in the European Union. Some sections of the Conservative Party, in power in the UK since 2010, have made strong calls for a renegotiation of membership. Others have called for outright withdrawal. The rising popularity of UKIP has added extra pressure on the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to give the British public a vote on EU membership.
A referendum could take place as early as spring 2016. Although recent opinion polls have indicated a general preference for continued membership, the possibility of Brexit (UK exit from the EU) raises some challenging questions. What would Brexit mean for the UK? What would Brexit mean for Europe and other countries around the world?
Much has been said about the first question. Fewer commentators have pondered on the second. The German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a German think tank, released a report in late 2014 that attempts to answer this question. With contributions from analysts from over 25 countries, the report provides interesting discussions about how the EU and the rest of the world would respond to a UK outside the Union.
Although the report discusses the possible consequences of a UK exit for the future of the European project, it does so from overwhelmingly macroeconomic, security and diplomatic perspectives. While surely important, such perspectives neglect the equally significant issue of Europe as a political project. An interesting question for the voluntary sector centres on the impact of Brexit on European solidarity and democracy. With or without an exit, current British attitudes and debates are enough to make us think about these issues.
We live in an age of unprecedented popular dissatisfaction with the European project, including in countries where public opinion has traditionally been very supportive of the EU – for example, Italy. Exemplified by the handling of the Greek crisis, many have come to see Europe as an unaccountable and distant power that lacks the legitimacy to influence people’s lives. Several governments are wary of further integration and would like to see reforms to a number of areas of the European project.
On the other hand, since the 2008 crisis, the Eurozone – led by Germany – has attempted to push for further fiscal and monetary union. The British government has been sidelined by this process and now finds itself at the margins of debates on EU integration.
A recurring theme in the report is the current British attitude of blackmailing the EU with a potential exit to get concessions that serve its own interests. Several governments – including the Dutch, German, Hungarian, Polish and French – have been hostile to the idea of member states wanting to reap the benefits of union without the constraints and responsibilities that it entails. Historically perceived as a pragmatic and helpful partner, the UK government has now come to be seen by its European counterparts as “a spoiler in the EU” – a country excessively driven by ideology and that undermines European values and alienates its traditional allies in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
Why is all this important? Because the responses to the Greek crisis, popular sentiment across the EU and current British attitudes illustrate the present difficulties of upholding a shared sense of solidarity, mutual support, citizen engagement and social justice in Europe. These are crucial issues for civil society, which has insisted for a long time on the importance of Europe being led by principles of inclusiveness, collaboration and sustainability. Purely economic and security calculations on the exit of a member state reveal an underlying lack of focus on the common good.
In other words, what would Brexit mean for citizens, urban communities, rural communities, volunteers, workers, the unemployed, young people, children, migrants, refugees, women and ethnic minorities? Does the current stand-off between Britain and Europe illustrate a larger problem of prioritising the strategic interests of governments over concerted efforts to address the challenges affecting ordinary people in Europe?
This is the moment for Europe to unite and implement positive responses to the humanitarian situation in the Mediterranean, the conflicts in the Middle East, the conflict in Ukraine, the rising inequalities within and between states, the violation of fundamental rights in several parts of Europe, and the daily struggles of millions of people in situation of vulnerability in the EU. Self-interested debates about repatriation of powers, exits, controlling migration and enforcing austerity only distract us from the challenges affecting the daily lives of millions of citizens.
This is not to argue that Britain – or any other member state for that matter – should not leave the EU. Rather, the point is that any debate about the European project must be based on rigorous common good tests: Does this measure improve the wellbeing of people, especially those in the most vulnerable situations? Does it protect human rights? Does it guarantee environmental sustainability and inter-generational justice? Does it strengthen communities and promote active citizenship?
British debates on Europe do not address any of these issues. On the contrary, they stimulate similar self-interested debates elsewhere and fuel movements and parties in the far right and the far left. We are in dire need of a fresh narrative for Europe; one that is based on a sense of shared future and can engage the imagination of all, motivating new types of communication.
We need to find collective solutions to current challenges rather than blame our problems on migrants, refugees or lazy southerners. Whether bigger, smaller, more or less integrated, with more or less powers, this is the time for Europe to discuss and commit to the common good.