LONDON – A referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union may be less than a year away. If it comes, voters will be asked to make a weighty decision. At issue is not just the UK’s relationship with its neighbors across the channel, but also its proper position on the international stage.
Fortunately, few in the country are supporters of the hoary concept of “splendid isolation.” Whether or not the UK – one of the world’s most outward-looking countries – remains in the EU, globalization rules out that option.
Instead, proponents of withdrawal from the EU tend to fall back on nostalgia-infused reinventions of Britain’s imperial past – most notably the nebulous notion of the “Anglosphere,” a concept based on Winston Churchill’s idea of unity among the “English-speaking peoples.” Instead of trading with the economically sclerotic and navel-gazing EU, the argument goes, it would be far better to form bilateral partnerships with countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and India.
The argument generally offered is one of cultural affinity – as if centuries of common history, culture, and relations with the rest of Europe counted for nothing. Indeed, with the English language now globally ubiquitous, the idea of an Anglosphere is little more than an artificial construct behind which anti-European sentiment can be hidden.
In any case, the notion is clearly impractical. Over the past 40 years, the English-speaking countries have reoriented their economies toward their regional partners. Just as the UK repositioned itself in 1973 by joining what would become the EU, the US and Canada have pivoted toward Latin America and Asia. Australia’s foreign policy is now “More Jakarta, less Geneva,” and India is busy courting its geostrategic archrival, China.
To be sure, these countries continue to regard the UK as a vital trade partner. But this is in large part because Britain is viewed as a bridge to the world’s largest economy: the EU’s single market. Indeed, no English-speaking leader (outside the country) has ever called for the UK to withdraw from the EU. Instead, they repeatedly express the hope that it will remain a pivotal player in a prosperous and globally engaged Europe, something US President Barack Obama recently reaffirmed in a conversation with UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
It takes a blinkered view of the world to conclude that the UK could raise its international profile by leaving the EU. The country does punch above its weight when it comes to foreign policy; after all, it is a nuclear power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. But its global influence stems in no small part from the strategic clout that EU membership provides.
The EU has achieved several notable foreign-policy advances recently, all of them essential to the UK’s national interest. The EU played a central role in reaching the recent nuclear agreement with Iran; brokered a previously unthinkable deal between Serbia and Kosovo (principally by dangling the carrot of EU membership before both countries); and has led the way in responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine with crippling economic sanctions.
The argument that EU membership has undermined Britain’s ability to craft its own foreign policy simply does not bear scrutiny. As a member state, the UK has the option of choosing whether to go it alone in foreign affairs or cooperate with Europe on a case-by-case basis. And the UK’s deep and extensive relationships around the world have given it an outsize role in determining EU foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the UK benefits from defense cooperation with the EU, while retaining the right to unilateral military deployments. The highly successful EU counter-piracy effort focusing on the Horn of Africa is managed from Northwood, in my London constituency. And British defense industries are major suppliers to the armed forces of other EU member states.
Economically, the UK’s trading position with the rest of the world is strengthened by its membership in the EU. Trade agreements are time-consuming to negotiate and often narrow in scope, and the EU’s common commercial policy and the 500 million consumers living within its borders give it strong bargaining power. Since the EU and South Korea signed a free trade agreement in 2011, for example, the UK’s bilateral trade with the country has almost doubled.
If individually negotiated trade agreements were the way to go, Germany – the EU’s largest and most successful exporter – would favor them. It does not. Moreover, countries such as Colombia and Singapore, which have recently concluded free-trade agreements with the EU, are distinctly unenthusiastic about the prospect of starting a separate negotiating process with the UK.
As the UK’s voters begin considering the alternatives, they would do well to remember that their country is not the international power it once was. Coming at a time when the Greek crisis remains unsettled and the continent’s economy is fragile, a decision to leave the EU could destabilize the entire continent – something only Russian President Vladimir Putin or the leaders of the so-called Islamic State would like to see.
The UK should seek to maximize its economic and strategic potential by cooperating with its partners in the EU. Staking out a solitary or semi-detached position in today’s increasingly unpredictable world is likely to lead only to marginalization and decline.
Charles Tannock is a member of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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