I can think of no ‘happy ending’ scenario to this unfolding saga: like malaria, it is a malaise that has nested since British accession back in 1973, and erupts from time to time, though the current eruption is potentially of fatal proportions.
One cannot overstate the damage that a full-fledged exit of Britain will inflict on the EU. The importance goes well beyond the specificities of the functioning of the Union. It will survive and continue to function, even perhaps in some respects with less engine-room screeching. But as a global presence in the world, shaping and reshaping the impact will be huge, and to the detriment of the UK, the Union and the world. And internally, though not much might change on the surface, it will at the deepest spiritual level of European integration – and make no mistake, at its core the European construct has always been more than a functional, utilitarian enterprise – the damage will be equally shattering.
There are many in Britain who are sceptical about the benefits of British membership. But if Brexit results from a referendum vote, it is quite likely that it will be an English exit majority, with the opposite outcome in Scotland – almost inevitably leading to a Scottish exit from the UK, a catastrophic result by all accounts for the UK.
This MAD-like scenario assures at least one thing – that there will be no facile poker-playing in any future negotiations, the stakes are simply too high.
Allowing Scotland a referendum on its status within the UK was, in my eyes, the best of the British mature democratic tradition. Many express doubts whether the decision (for what it is) to allow a referendum for continued EU membership would justify such accolades. It was, according to some, holding the country hostage to the internal politics of the Tories. I don’t share this view. The fact that the EU issue has remained for so long – forever – a potent part of UK politics, together with the recent impressive successes of UKIP, means, in my opinion, that at some point the people should be able to express themselves, on such a critical ontological issue, directly. Be that as it may, a referendum was promised and to withdraw it at this point would undermine even further the fortunes of the Union in the UK and would be grist to the mill of the most populist of voices.
But, alas, even a victory for the ‘stay-in’ side in the referendum will solve little. The campaign will be ludicrous, a battle between different variants of scare tactics. One will be drowned in a torrent of tendentious facts from both sides. Even if you manage to persuade enough of the electorate that the UK will be damaged by exit, that very argument will feed the ongoing malaria for generations. Membership will be forever contingent subject to a utilitarian evaluation. It is likely that the margin of victory of either side will not be huge, so that even a stay-in victory would mean that Europe will continue to occupy British internal politics for decades to come.
Leading up to a referendum the British Prime Minister, whether Tory or Labour, will have to win some ‘concessions’. That is likely to be another farce. There are only so many ‘opt-outs’ that are consistent with full membership of the Union, and the kind of general rule changes for everyone that might make a difference to the campaign are precisely those that the other Member States could not and would not give. But I would go even further. There is no medicine, in the form of ‘concessions’ or rule changes, which will cure the malaria. It is the very idea of membership in a Union such as the EU which at the end of the day simply does not sit well. It is an identitarian issue rather than this or that policy that may or may not be negotiated.
And this, in my view, points to what I think would be the least of all evils – a very second best, but better than any other outcome. A negotiated special status for Britain as Associate Member, or something of the like. Yes, participation in institutions and decision-making would be tricky (but don’t immediately scream ‘impossible!’). And as an Associate Member the UK could downgrade its market participation to goods, capital and services but not labour – again, do not scream ‘impossible!’ There are FTAs aplenty that do just that. It would be a different kind of variable geometry. In some operational details it might be messy, but the status issue would be clear and even iconic. It is far from ideal, but if the choice is continued years of seething and continued brakes on further integration for those who want it or a once and for all change of status, I reluctantly opt for the latter.
Finally, the creation of such a status might also solve the Turkish dossier – sharing a status with Britain might be the dignified compromise that both the EU and Turkey have been seeking without ever admitting such.