quinta-feira, 14 de maio de 2015
The mistake that could trigger Brexit
Amid the sound and fury that will soon describe Britain’s relationship with Europe, the standard-bearers for Brexit in David Cameron’s Tory party hold a valuable card. The unavoidable fact of the prime minister’s promised renegotiation is that he cannot rewrite the founding rules of the EU club. A promise of reform, yes; a special protocol or two, quite possibly; but the repatriation of a measurable degree of sovereignty, never.
This simple fact is well understood by eurosceptics. They allude to it when they say, almost disarmingly, that all they ask is for authority over the nation’s borders or decisions about welfare policy be returned to parliament. This is the test they will apply to any deal — in the certain knowledge Mr Cameron will fail it. Even if the prime minister were to return from Brussels garlanded with concessions, the sovereignty pooled in successive EU treaties cannot be reclaimed.
Pro-Europeans also know this, but pretend otherwise. They look instead at surveys saying most Britons favour staying in what Mr Cameron calls a “reformed EU” and keep their counsel. On the anniversaries of Agincourt and Waterloo, why not collude with the government in declaring another famous victory over the continentals?
Putting aside the deception — who said politics was an honest business, and anyway, surely the end justifies the means? — the Europhiles are making a grave error. The first rule of war is to choose the ground on which the battle is fought. A referendum that turns on the worth of a reform deal hands the choice of terrain to the sceptics.
The British demands fall into three categories. One asks for guarantees to ensure Britain will not be disadvantaged by its absence from the eurozone — safeguards, in other words, for the City of London. The second calls for EU-wide reforms that, inter alia, would curb access to benefits of migrant workers, promote deregulation and limit intrusions into the nooks and crannies of national life. The third — so far vague — speaks to British exceptionalism. One idea is a British opt-out from the ill-defined EU goal of “ever closer union”.
Such changes will be difficult but not impossible to negotiate. Politicians from eastern Europe will defend ferociously the principle of free movement of workers. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, has given George Osborne, the chancellor, the message already transmitted to Greece’s Syriza government. A mandate bestowed by one electorate does not bind anyone else. So Mr Cameron should not expect to get treaty changes by piggybacking on reform of the eurozone.
German chancellor Angela Merkel — Mr Cameron’s indispensable interlocutor — has her own red line: the accumulated body of EU law, the precious acquis, cannot be unpicked. But, while the talks will have their rages and disputes, not least because all sides will play to their domestic political audiences, Britain’s partners have a serious interest in reaching a settlement.
To the extent that Europe exercises economic and political clout around the world, its standing has already been greatly diminished by the eurozone crisis. What would China, India, Brazil, or even the US make of a union that had lost one of its most powerful members? Cussed as it is, Britain lends weight.
All this though is the chaff of the referendum debate. For every point won by Mr Cameron the sceptics’ counter-charge will be that parliament is still shackled by the Treaty of Rome. If Britain is to vote for staying in, the argument must turn not on the window-dressing of reform, but on the essential merits of engagement.
Simply stated, for all the intrusions and irritations, Britain’s selfish national interest is best served by membership. Whether it is the economy or trade, security and foreign policy — even, yes — migration — the EU is a multiplier of, not a subtraction from, national power.
On this ground, the Europhiles have ammunition aplenty beyond the manifest truth that even largish nations have limited leverage in a world of closely connected, competing powers. The proof was gathered by the Tory-led government during the last parliament.
This “balance of competences” study was conceived by Tory sceptics as a way to demonstrate the EU’s unacceptable reach into national life. In the event, prejudice was felled by the overwhelming weight of evidence. Nearly three dozen detailed analyses concluded that national security and prosperity could not be separated from close collaboration in the EU. Outside, Britain would be weaker, less secure and poorer.
This substantive case has the additional merit of demanding from the sceptics what they present as the alternative to membership. Do they really want to join Norway or Switzerland as outsiders obliged by their need to access to the single market to implement every EU rule and regulation without any say in shaping them? Or would they prefer to drown in the deep blue sea?
There is no harm in cheering Mr Cameron’s crusade for reforms. Some are sensible, some silly. But the case for the EU is as it has always been. Britain cannot afford to isolate itself on its own continent. Margaret Thatcher knew this when, as Tory leader, she backed a yes vote in the 1975 referendum: “We are inextricably part of Europe . . . [no one] will ever be able to take us ‘out of Europe’ for Europe is where we are and where we have always been.”