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A 4th of July for the UK?

Could Britain be moving towards a Fourth of July of its own?

“A burning building with no exits.”

That’s what the current British Foreign Minister William Hague called a European monetary union in 1998. Now, despite urgings from Washington to stand by and help its European neighbors, Britain shows no desire to rush into the burning building. If anything, it looks ready to move out of the neighborhood.

The British joined the EU back in 1973, but after almost 40 years it hasn’t grown on them. Britain remains the odd man out in Europe with few friends and no real allies. The Franco-German partnership combines with Britain’s own idiosyncratic approach to European politics to marginalize the UK and deprive it of any long term partnerships.

The euro crisis both sharpens and deepens the misfit between the UK and its fellow members. The UK doesn’t want to pay the bills for a currency union it never liked and never joined; no UK government can ask taxpayers to shell out more for Greece, Italy and Spain while Britain’s own budget woes are leading to school closures, tuition increases, and cutbacks of all kinds.

To the British, this is common sense. To EU authorities, desperately trying to hold the union together, it looks like the usual British shortsighted piggishness — no thought of the common good, no thought of a greater European duty, no love for the idea that the EU could bring generations of peace to the continent after centuries of horrible wars. As usual, the “nation of shopkeepers” cares nothing for values; it just keeps a steely eye on the bottom line.

Britain’s desire to avoid paying any of the eurozone bills makes the division sharper; the consensus in Europe that the only cure for the euro is to rush towards political union makes the division deeper.

Britain does not want now and never has wanted a European political union. From the British perspective, Britain has preserved its freedom for hundreds of years while one European country after another has gone through bloody revolutions, authoritarian dictatorships and nasty kleptocracies. Why pool sovereignty with Bulgaria, Britons ask. Why pool it with Greece? Or, for that matter, Germany and France?

The British don’t talk about British exceptionalism as much as they did when the UK was the world’s greatest power, but many feel it as deeply as ever. The qualities that make Britain different from other European countries, they feel, are the qualities that make Britain special. They are the qualities that built British liberty and the qualities that built British prosperity. Like the world’s other great insular nation, Japan, Britain is standoffish; it wants to meet its neighbors in restaurants and clubs, but not have the whole neighborhood move in under one roof.

As Philip Stephens points out in the Financial Times, Prime Minster David Cameron is standing firm against Britain getting tied up in any debt mutualization or European banking union. Meanwhile, many in his party and beyond wonder if it’s not time to leave the EU, a club they never felt they belonged to in the first place.

The Economist sums up Britain’s increasing wariness of further European integration as a solution to the crisis:

[I]f euro-zone members overcome their differences and integrate much more deeply, they would arguably be leaving Britain, especially if their integration fragments the single market that is the bedrock of British membership. Mr Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, may talk of the euro’s “remorseless logic” compelling richer members to stand behind the weak. But there are paths of European integration down which no government led by Mr Cameron (or for that matter [Labour opposition leader] Mr Miliband) could follow.

What’s more: both The Economist and the FT have used the word “inevitable” vis-à-vis a referendum on Britain’s ties with Europe, “guaranteeing a national vote on any future transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels.”

Right now, the UK and the rest of the EU seem to be drifting apart. Britain is getting more skittish about the constraints of the EU, while the others have been driven by the financial crisis toward what begins to look like a rush to a deeper political union as a way of saving the euro.

If this holds up, a British exit from the EU might actually happen. That is still a low probability scenario, but the chances are rising. Washington needs to spend some time thinking about what that would mean for US foreign policy.

The ejection of Britain and the consolidation of a continental union (which would likely not be a very happy place, but that is a subject for another day) would mean a significant change in world politics. Europe is no longer the center of America’s foreign policy universe, but what happens there still matters to us. Ever since the Revolution, European crises have had a profound impact on America’s political and economic development. The current crisis will also leave its mark.

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  • Phineas

    While it would cause serious disruptions, I think Britain leaving the EU would be for the best.As you say, they’ve never been a good fit, and the EU now is little more than a bureaucratic dictatorship. The UK would do best to get out, repatriate its sovereignty, and negotiate some sort of trade arrangement with the Continent similar to what the members of EFTA have.

  • MarkE

    A closer union between Britain and the Continent isn’t likely to happen until their beliefs are more similar. France and a lot of the Continent seem to be of the “egalite, liberte, and fraternite” frame-of-mind. The British are more like us being of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness frame-of-mind. At least they have the belief in liberty in common.
    Given the historical evidence, the Continent would probably do better to move toward Britain’s beliefs.

  • Paul Graham

    I am afraid that a UK exit from Europe is far from being a low probability scenario.

    For many years the polling has consistently suggested that a referendum, if offered, would result in exit. That was the popular choice, but it was not the preference of the educated elites and political classes.

    What has changed – hence the word ‘inevitable’ – is that even the europhile elites see that denying a referendum is not a sustainable position.

    Why not? Because both main political parties have worked out from their private polling that the offer of a referendum could be the difference between winning or losing a general election.

    Thus the UK leaves. And with it goes the financial services industry that bankrolls the country, and its last remaining major manufacturing sectors – aerospace and automobiles – which entirely depend on European membership for their prosperity.

  • Crocodile Chuck

    “ UK government can ask taxpayers to shell out more for Greece, Italy and Spain while Britain’s own budget woes are leading to school closures, tuition increases, and cutbacks of all kinds.”

    The UK faces the same dire financial armageddon as its european stablemates:

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    If tanks couldn’t hold the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact together, why should we believe that the European Political Elites can hold the Euro and EU together? If they really have a plan to hold it together should they already have implemented it?

    If the Germans give their credit card to France and the PIIGS, they just guarantee that they will all go bankrupt together, as France and the PIIGS will never make the politically distasteful spending cuts necessary if they aren’t forced to by the lack of credit. Like irresponsible teenagers with mom & dads credit card, there will always be another excuse for why they have to spend more.

  • jaybird

    One thing that has always baffled me, as an American, is why many Brits seem to view the connection with the Continent as more meaningful or closer than that with the US. I made a bet once that the UK would eventually join NAFTA — maybe that is still possible.

  • Al

    My understanding is that the Uk contributes far more to the EU than France.

  • Art Deco

    Thus the UK leaves. And with it goes the financial services industry that bankrolls the country, and its last remaining major manufacturing sectors – aerospace and automobiles – which entirely depend on European membership for their prosperity.

    Funny thing. Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Israel, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore seem to shuffle along without being members of the European Union. They also have banks and insurance companies.

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