My government professor in Berlin loved to start every class by posing to us all the question: “How many members states are there in the EU?” Our ritualistic response (“Siebenundzwanzig” in the most joyless tones you can imagine) became so firmly ingrained in our heads that a girl in our class announced that she was positive when dementia struck her, she would live out her days muttering just that word over and over to the utter confusion of all around, German-speaking or not.
Naturally, we were all greatly distressed by the prospect of Croatian membership in the Union later this year ruining our ability to reflexively state in German how many countries there are in the EU. Luckily, British Prime Minister David Cameron has come to our rescue and announced his intention to hold a referendum on the question of whether Great Britain should remain a member of the bloc sometime in 2017.
Though as transparently a political move as could possibly imagine (the subtext of Cameron’s promise is that such a referendum will only happen if the Conservatives win the next round of elections), there is still a real risk not only that such a referendum will happen, but that it would also be successful. Polls show that about 49 percent of British voters would vote to pull out in a hypothetical referendum, with only about a quarter in favor of staying in.
The frustrations are entirely understandable. There has never been the sort of enthusiasm for European integration in the British Isles as across the Channel. The U.K. never joined the common currency and made so much trouble in the 80s that it gets a rebate every year worth billions from the EU budget given to no other member. Special treatment has always been the price of British participation.
The twin motors of European integration, France and Germany, have been predictably exasperated by the latest plea for attention from London. The French Foreign Minister remarked that, “If Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet” while his German counterpart muttered bitterly about “cherry-picking” members.
France and Germany have a right to be mad. They are stuck with the EU. Their futures are staked on a united Europe. Both nations are well aware of what happens when Germany is allowed to put its own good ahead of that of Europe, and both are eager to make sure that never happens again.
Britain though, by virtue of its geographical and historical positions, still can strike out on its own.
Perhaps it would even be better off economically for it. There is not a person alive who can predict what Europe will look like economically five years from now, let alone farther ahead than that, but there is no guarantee that the British would not be better off without it. Of course, one must be quick to add there is no guarantee they would be either.
The real difference would be on the world stage. Britannia can still rule, but only as part of an integrated European Union. A Great Britain outside of the European Union would be influential in the world, but given its declining economic position, it would be forced to find more powerful allies if it wished to accomplish anything of note. It would be essentially Argentina with nuclear weapons and a Security Council veto.
Ultimately, the British have to ask themselves if they are willing to give up on the dream that is Europe. Carping about regulators in Brussels or tax evaders in Athens does not change the fact that the longest period of peace and prosperity on the continent since the fall of Rome has occurred under the EU. Is that worth abandoning for uncertain economic and political games?
I cannot answer that. At this point, it looks as if only the British voter can.