16 mars 2013

Understanding the “Brexit”.

FR // Le Premier ministre britannique David Cameron a annoncé en janvier dernier qu'en cas de ré-élection en 2015, il proposerait aux citoyens du Royaume-Uni de quitter, ou non, l'Union européenne (EU) via un référendum en 2017. Il s'était pourtant prononcé, pas plus tard qu'en 2011, contre une telle consultation citoyenne. Notre nouvelle journaliste LPO, Fiona Sternenfänger, analyse cette tenace aspiration britannique à une sortie de l'UE [surnommée le Brexit - contraction de Britain/British et exit, ndb]. L'article est en anglais, une bonne occasion de pratiquer la langue de Shakespeare !
ES // El Primer Ministro británico David Cameron declaró en enero pasado que, en caso de volver a ser elegido en 2015, propondría a los ciudadanos del Reino Unido –en el marco de un referéndum en 2017– la posibilidad de salir de la Unión Europea, no obstante haberse declarado, recién en 2011, en contra de semejante consulta ciudadana. Nuestra nueva periodista para LPO, Fiona Sternenfänger, analiza esta situación para que podamos entender mejor estas ansias británicas por salir de la Unión Europea (que llegaron a ser apodadas “el Brexit” –mezcla de Britain/British y exit– ndb). El artículo está en inglés, una buena oportunidad para practicar la lengua de Shakespeare.

Britain and Europe - What to think of Cameron’s announced referendum?

In January 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that, if re-elected in 2015, he would conduct a referendum by 2017, having the British public vote on whether to leave the European Union. With this step, Cameron has strayed far from his predecessor’s path. Even though euroscepticism has always been strong in Great Britain, no one would even consider the possibility of a “Brexit”, i.e. Britain leaving the European Union (EU), during the Blair and Brown administration. There was simply no alternative to being a member. This time around, however, Cameron and his ministers are putting their foot down, or so it seems. What are the issues?

Reasons given for the UK withdrawal from the European Union

Mr Cameron and his Conservative Party are of the opinion that the political and economic bloc hinders Britain more than it helps. The advantages of free trade in the single market are not sufficient to make them overlook the complicated structures within the Union, its lack of international competitiveness and the ongoing financial crisis. Also, most continental countries tend to lean towards social democratism, with even countries governed by the centre-right going for higher taxes and welfare spending and aiming for a greater control of the markets.

The idea of the United Kingdom moving in that direction, and the EU having a say in Britain’s labour market regulations and legal policies does not seem to go down well with the Tories. They argue that such a close bond with Europe will lead to a decline in Britain’s economic and social freedoms, and opt for strengthening relations with the United States instead. Britain would be the first member state to leave the EU. Cameron’s idea seems to be quite popular with the British public: A recently conducted poll for the Financial Times showed that if asked to vote now, only 33% would prefer the United Kingdom to remain part of the EU. Tony Blair, on the other hand, has sharply criticised his successor’s move, stating that “leaving Europe would be very bad for Britain”.

Cameron’s position

In a speech given at Bloomberg in late January, Mr Cameron was eager to distance himself from radical euroscepticism, stating he would campaign “heart and soul” to stay within the EU, under one condition: that he be able to bargain a deal he considers feasible for the UK. Chancellor George Osborne reinforced the Conservative position, saying: “I very much hope that Britain remains a member of the EU, but in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must change.”

David Cameron, UK's Prime minister.

The Conservatives obviously expect concessions from the EU, allowing them to renegotiate from a position of strength. However, Cameron did not state what a solution would look like, or which powers he expects to be returned to the UK. The Prime Minister, being aware that in the UK “disillusionment” with the EU is at an “all-time high” and urged by his own party to take a hard line regarding the EU issue, is gambling to satisfy the sceptics while wanting to remain part of the Union. Cameron has said that he believes in “confronting” the EU “issue” and “not simply hoping a difficult situation will go away”. On the other hand, Ed Miliband, leader of the opposing Labour party, has taken a stance against the referendum, warning against the “huge gamble” and revealing that Cameron had voted against holding a referendum as recently as 2011 and had now only changed his mind because he was "frightened" and had "given in to" his backbenchers. Similarly, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has stated that Cameron's move is motivated purely by considerations of party politics and campaign strategy.

Reactions throughout Europe

Whatever the intentions behind it, Cameron's move has sparked discussion throughout the Union, with not everybody reacting as Britain had obviously hoped.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius stated that Britain could not hope for an “a la carte” membership, choosing only the rules it would like to apply and disregarding others. Although admitting that Britain had certain benefits to offer to Europe, Fabius still insisted that he would definitely not seek to keep Britain from exiting the EU, if they wanted to. President Francois Hollande put the matter in friendlier terms, saying he would not want to UK to leave, but that “being a member of the European Union involves obligations”. In a study conducted by the Parisien-Aujourd'hui, 52% of the French population were in favour of the UK leaving the EU.

Laurent Fabius, the french Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Similar to Fabius, Ex-German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described the UK politics as “cherry-picking”. Gunther Krichbaum, the chair of Germany's European Affairs committee, warned Britain by saying that “you cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states”. However, losing Britain as a EU member would not be in Germany's interest either: In terms of economic and financial policy, Germany's position is far more similar to Britain’s, the state being somewhat limited in interfering in the economic process. In the Romance countries, particularly France, government interference in the market is more pronounced. This causes chancellor Angela Merkel to tread carefully in the referendum matter, maybe even seeing a possibility to support Cameron's demand up to a point, as his views are not that far from her own.

As we can see, most of Europe has been quick to criticise Britain's move. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger sees the EU succeeding only "if you pull together in the same direction". Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt urged that Europe should not be a "help-yourself table".

Even the great transatlantic ally has voiced concern: U.S. Assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Philip Gordon, said of Britain that, “more than most others, its voice within the European Union is essential and critical to the United States”.

Right now, the rest of Europe sounds more annoyed than threatened by Cameron's plans, and not very inclined to enter into negotiations or make any kind of exception for Britain should this referendum indeed come to take place in 2017.

However, as BBC Brussels reporter Chris Morris pointed out, Cameron’s criticism of the EU as something imposed on the people rather than acting on their behalf will probably ring true with protesters in Athens or Madrid against overpowering EU policies. Thus the referendum, whether carried out or not, might still pose a substantial threat to the European idea, planting even more doubts in the minds of those already seeing themselves on the losing side.

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