A Liberal, Realistic European Union Needs Britain

As long as the United Kingdom stays in, the EU will never develop into the thing Britons fear.

European Union flags
Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union outside the Berlaymont in Brussels, January 29 (European Commission)

France and Poland team up to block a trade pact with South America, fearing cheap agricultural imports. Opposition to a trade agreement with the United States grows in Germany and Italy, possibly dooming the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Countries in Central Europe feel squeezed in between their former occupier Russia and an accommodating Germany.

The last few weeks have been a preview of what the European Union might look like without the British.

They will decide in a referendum next week whether to stay in the EU or leave. We hope a majority will vote “remain”, which is the better option for everyone.

Worst of both worlds

Few of the arguments for leaving stand up to scrutiny.

The money Britain spends on membership each year is more than offset by what the country gains from being in the single market. It could presumably negotiate preferential trade access, similar to the arrangements Norway and Switzerland have. But non-EU countries in what is called the European Economic Area still have to pay for the privilege and adopt most EU laws and regulations, except in agriculture and fisheries.

Surely that would be the worst of both words? Britain would still pay, it could still be bossed around by EU mandarins, but it wouldn’t have control over either. No wonder Norway has advised the British against taking it as a model.


Proponents of an exit argue that Britain’s voice isn’t heard in Brussels anyway. The country is outvoted more often than most in the European Council and the European Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, an avowed federalist, to the European Commission presidency. Nor could he stop countries that use the euro from deepening fiscal and monetary integration.

Yet Britain has significant influence in other ways. Its nationals occupy key posts in the Commission and the Parliament, including chairmanships to rapporteurships. For many small and liberal-minded member states, like those on the Baltic Sea, Denmark and the Netherlands, the United Kingdom provides a cover when they are reluctant to cross France or Germany.

For the Germans, who can never press their own interests too hard, British recalcitrance provides a convenient excuse not to give too much to the French and the Italians.


Britain helps keep the EU focused on the things that matter and the things it does best: cross-border cooperation to fight crime and terrorism, the single market and trade deals with other countries.

It also steers the continent clear of federalist fantasies, like a European army.

As long as the British stays in, the EU will never develop into the thing they fear. Many other Europeans would thank them for it.