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KULTURA LIBERALNA > Pytając > Leaving the EU...

Leaving the EU would be a political and economic disaster

Robert Cooper in an interview with Łukasz Pawłowski

Leaving the EU would be a political and economic disaster

“If the United Kingdom ever decided to leave the European Union, then Scotland would almost certainly leave the UK – they would not like to be left alone with the English”, says Robert Cooper in an interview with Łukasz Pawłowski

Łukasz Pawłowski: Does still a majority of Britons want to leave the European Union as some opinion polls back in November suggested? 

Robert Cooper*: The most important thing to understand about the United Kingdom is that most people don’t care about the European Union. The issues they care about are jobs, prices, health, education, crime, sometimes immigration. They associate these issues with Westminster, not with Brussels. If you ask them whether they like the EU, they will probably say they don’t. But then why should they? All they see is the mess created by the euro, endless summit meetings making empty declarations about growth, stability and jobs. But they don’t like the British government much either. That’s all normal.

Then why are the UK-EU relations so often discussed in British politics?

Because the political class, the Conservative Party is obsessed with the EU. I won’t try to explain why because I don’t understand them and I would probably not do them justice if I tried. Conservative party members are about 0.25% of the population; so normally that wouldn’t matter much, but at the moment they are in power so you have to take them seriously. The present government can’t decide whether the economic crisis is the fault of the last Labour government or of the EU. They have forgotten about the mess the banks made, and the regulators, both in Europe and in the United States.

What expectations, then, do Britons have towards the EU? 

Very low. Most people don’t know what it does. It is wrong though to ask these questions about British people. You would get more positive responses in Scotland.

And this is quite paradoxical, because on the one hand you say Europe is not a very engaging issue for Britons but on the other, it seems be a very divisive one if you consider the differences between the Scots and the English.

You are right, euroscepticism is most prevalent in England. As you know, next year we will have a referendum on Scottish independence. One of the issues that discourage Scots from voting for independence is the question of whether membership in the European Union for an independent Scotland would be automatic or whether it would have to be negotiated. Scottish National Party which campaigns for independence has been making a great effort to persuade the Scots they will not lose their membership in the EU if they leave the UK.  However, if the United Kingdom ever decided to leave the European Union, then Scotland would almost certainly leave the UK – they would not like to be left alone with the English.

Where does this difference between the English and the Scots come from?

I’m not sure at all. Except that there is a history of strong connections between Scotland and the Continent. It may seem ridiculous as it all happened in the past centuries, yet if one looks at the wars England fought against France, quite frequently there were many Scottish people in French armies. The army of Joan d’Arc contained more Scottish than French – they acted according to the rule that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Why this should make any difference today – I have no idea. Nonetheless, the connections between Scotland and Europe go back long way.

So the government in London may be forced to stay within the EU in order not to risk any serious complication of its relations with Scotland?

Yes, and there’s another very important complication which I haven’t heard anybody discuss so far , namely – EU membership is quite important for handling the conflict in Northern Ireland.

In what sense?

The common membership in the EU of both Ireland and the UK is a very important factor for regulating relations between the two parts of Ireland. If Britain left the EU, a regular border control would probably be reintroduced between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland, which would certainly destabilize the arrangements put in place by the Good Friday agreement signed in 1998.

In all the answers you have given so far, you mentioned only negative consequences leaving the EU would have for Britain. What would be the positive ones?

I can hardly see any.

Are therefore any alternative scenarios – other than staying within the EU – seriously being considered by political leaders? How probable are those alternative scenarios? 

This is very easy to answer: NO. I have not heard anything you could describe as a serious alternative strategy. I have heard people talk of Britain copying Australian or Singaporean model. This is ridiculous: we are neither major exporter of raw materials to China nor a City state. As it happens the Australians themselves think we would be crazy to leave the EU; and Singapore is not planning to leave ASEAN.

You don’t need look so far away for examples to follow.  Switzerland and Norway, despite being outside the EU, are doing very well. Britain could adopt this model of cooperation with Europe.

What is the advantage of that? Usually the argument says that leaving the EU would free us from all those regulations introduced by Brussels. It’s nonsense. Every product in the world has to meet consumer safety standards and these are set either in Europe or the United States. If you want to sell anything in Europe you have to meet European regulations. Rather than more independence we would get what the Norwegians call “fax democracy”. You wait by the fax machine to see what regulation the Council has adopted and then you adopt it yourself. It’s a way of losing sovereignty. Leaving the EU would have disastrous consequences for British foreign trade. Thus, looking from the economic perspective leaving the EU would be foolish.

And from the political perspective?

It’s even more ridiculous. In international relations you are either a realist – in which case you believe that it’s dangerous to allow a powerful block to grow within the EU independently of Britain – or you are an idealist – in which case you believe that international cooperation within common institutions is good for peace. So, both from the economic and the political point of view there’s no case for the UK leaving the EU.

To tell the truth, there’s only one argument in favour of leaving I’ve got some sympathy with – namely that there a lot things wrong with the EU. In my view, however, this is an argument not for leaving the EU but for changing it.

How would Britons like the EU to evolve in the next years or decades? What would need to happen for them to start to see themselves as true Europeans?

British people are more European now than they used to be. They go to Europe more often; they are better educated; they have more European friends, partners, colleagues. They even drink wine and eat garlic! But the easiest way to feel European is to spend time in the USA. Then you realise how much we have in common with other European countries.

What do you – as a person with long experience in European institutions – think of the EU-UK relation?

I don’t think that we have a “relationship” with the EU – we are a part of it. EU is a kind of historical miracle; but it is a man made miracle and is very imperfect. It needs time and thought and patience and discussion. All of the institutions are faulty and need, over time, to change. This should be an organic process of small steps and continuous improvement, not a grand project. Grand projects – like the euro – almost always go wrong. The mood in Europe is ready for change. The UK could make a big contribution.

What sort of contribution?

I think there is a kind of practical-empirical spirit in Britain, different from for example the German approach. The Germans are engineers, they like to design and therefore like big plans. In philosophical terms, this is a difference between Hegel who thought that everything was connected and Hume who thought that everything was separate. The French are pretty fond of grand projects as well. In Britain nobody ever really has a plan. You just ask what are we going to do next and things evolve step by step in a direction you have not really thought about, since you don’t plan very far ahead. I believe that is a useful intellectual counter-balance for the designers of grand projects and would be quite beneficial for Europe. Let’s not forget that British political institutions, despite not having been subjected to any grand plan, have evolved over the years in a rather satisfactory way.

* Sir Robert Cooper, is a British diplomat. He has worked at various British embassies abroad, notably those in Tokyo and Bonn and was an advisor to Javier Solana, the former High Representative of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. He is currently serving as a Counsellor in the European External Action Service. He is also a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

** Łukasz Pawłowski is a journalist, regular contributor and managing editor at “Kultura Liberalna”.

„Kultura Liberalna” nr 242 (35/2013) z 27 sierpnia 2013 r.

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