Good Riddance to Great Britain

London has always tried to remake the EU in its own image — and it's an image that most Europeans hate.

LONDON - MAY 14:  The image of Queen Elizabeth II on a 20 sterling note is seen between Euro banknotes May 14, 2003, in London. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is expected to announce whether Britain should enter the European Economic and Monetary Union, based on the five tests he outlined as being vital to Britain adopting the Euro. The government is due to announce by June 7, 2003, whether there will be a referendum on joining the single currency.  (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
LONDON - MAY 14: The image of Queen Elizabeth II on a 20 sterling note is seen between Euro banknotes May 14, 2003, in London. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is expected to announce whether Britain should enter the European Economic and Monetary Union, based on the five tests he outlined as being vital to Britain adopting the Euro. The government is due to announce by June 7, 2003, whether there will be a referendum on joining the single currency. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Perhaps in no country in Europe is the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union feared so much by so many as the Netherlands, where I am from. The Dutch sympathy for Britain is genuine and widespread; it has old roots, as both countries, from time immemorial, have been mercantile nations, with an aversion toward protectionism. Which is to say that Dutch feelings are not representative of European feelings more broadly — nor should they be considered flattering for Britain.

It was the Dutch who, in the 1960s, were already pleading for British membership in the Union, although the attempts of the Dutch Foreign Minister Joseph Luns at the time were blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. This is because in Britain, the Dutch see a like‑minded partner: a partner who believes in free trade, and as a result, can serve as a counterweight to France and Germany, who traditionally advocate for more state‑guided industrial policies. In Paris and Berlin, older notions about a socially responsible state still hold sway; in London, they were driven out thirty years ago, replaced by an ideology of privatization. For France and Germany, the concept of Europe as a set of ideals and values remains strong; not so in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron, in calling for next week’s referendum in the first place, has shown himself all too ready to risk a four‑decade-long partnership for the sake of political expediency.

For British governments, and for the Conservative Party in charge of the current iteration especially, the EU was never intended to be more than a distribution outlet for British exports — nowadays, mostly financial products. This vision of Europe as mainly a trade market is also shared by a lot of contemporary Dutch politicians. Older, idealistic notions of a political union as a means to uphold internal European peace have been mostly replaced by materialistic ones. Uri Rosenthal, the Dutch foreign minister from 2010 to 2012 and an ideological godfather to the current prime minister, once bluntly declared – to the astonishment of most of his own civil servants — that the main reason the Netherlands became an EU member state was to augment our rather modest domestic market — that is, to ensure more consumers for our cheese and tomatoes. His view is shared by many of our compatriots. In accordance with this worldview, Prime Minister Mark Rutte himself recently used his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in part to promote Heineken beer.

A Brexit would deprive the Dutch of an important ally in their desire to reduce the European Union to a simple business venture. But this extremely narrow conception of the purpose of pan‑European cooperation is exactly why the EU might, contrary to most popular opinion, benefit from a Brexit. The United Kingdom didn’t join and stay inside the EU to make something of it, but rather, to prevent others from making something of it.

Over the course of its 40 years as an EU member, London has consistently supported efforts to further enlarge the Union, for states ranging from Turkey to Ukraine. The result has been, in effect, a subtle form of sabotage: The bigger the EU, the looser it, by necessity, has had to become. As territorial expansion makes the Union more diverse, it makes substantive deepening ‑‑ the famous “ever closer union” ‑‑ increasingly impossible, until we are left with a sort of hollowed-out shell of what the European Union was intended to be.

If the British vote on June 23 for staying in the Union, they are expected to do so with such a small majority that, even afterwards, the discussion will not be over. On the contrary, as soon it becomes clear to voters, who, at the moment, may be convinced by Cameron’s arguments, that the concessions the prime minister managed to secure from Brussels ahead of the vote aren’t as huge as he pretended they were (as they couldn’t be, without endangering the concept of a union as such) ‑‑ as soon as it turns out that London’s proud gains amount to little more than the renewed assurance that the British in the future will still be allowed to drive on the left and to have their judges wear wigs — the clamor for an exit will begin anew. Should London be asked to make some kind of new sacrifice for the common European cause, like contributing extra to the EU budget for helping Greece or having a proportional share in the reception of refugees, we might expect it to begin even sooner. But Europe can’t afford to be taken hostage any longer by British politicians’ fears of their own electorate.

The main political problem in Europe — the one that looms over all its other problems, has made handling them so difficult for the European political elite, and has led to the rise of Euroskeptic populist parties in nearly all of the Union’’s member states ‑‑ is the loss of support for the very idea of European cooperation. Europe, in the eyes of a large proportion of its inhabitants, has come to be regarded not as a shelter, but as a threat.

This is due in part to the work of Britain, which insists on dragging Europe in a free market direction that runs contrary to the instincts of most of its citizens. Most European citizens cherish the nationally organized welfare state. The European Union gradually has become the incarnation of the reverse — of flexibility, privatization, and deregulation, which together have resulted in the demolition of social security arrangements deemed essential by the lower and middle classes. Competing taxation policies have resulted in the reduction of state budgets for education, housing, health care, and other collective efforts; large gaps in both the wage levels and the welfare policies of EU member states have, thanks to open borders, resulted in large-scale migrations that have put the wages of richer countries in northern and western Europe under pressure.

To give just one example, in 2005, during the French referendum on the European constitution, the management of a car factory in Mulhouse decided to outsource most of its manufacturing jobs to Romania, a soon-to-be EU member state. The workers? They would be allowed to continue their jobs — as seasonal workers in Romania — if they would accept Romanian wage levels. There would be no such arrangement for the managers, of course, who managed to convince shareholders to in fact, pay them more as a result of the savings they generated. It would be no wonder if most of those workers voted against Europe in the subsequent EU constitutional referendum. A common market with open borders but no social protections in practice means that a company’s director, referring to the American rivals vying for his services, can augment his own salary, while at the same time saying to his workers, that, because of the Albanian rivals vying for their jobs, they must be content in the future with less.

When Brussels has suggested potential measures to provide more economic protection to normal Europeans, it has been mainly — although not only — Britain, that, in the past, has stood in the way, the better to protect the financial interests of big business. In the long run, this was destined to prove disastrous for the European Union’s public approval, and thus, its political survival, but the British government was undeterred. Consider the many proposals for rules that might discipline the financial markets that Britain has readily slapped down, as London regards the City as the core of its national revenue model.

Westminster wants unlimited access to the common market, but declines any fiscal or social obligations. It engages in unfair fiscal and social competition that results in tax paradises for the rich and low wages for the poor in Britain, and forces more civilized countries to follow it in this race to the bottom, leading them to dismantle, against the will of their own citizens, a welfare state model that has long assured security for all. As long as Britain remains within the European Union, this clash will continue to dominate internal European politics, and thus, will continue to feed EU citizens’ growing aversion toward Brussels and the enormous growth of anti-European right-wing parties.

It is unhealthy for the EU to have a member state that is constantly talking about how awful it is — how much it hates all that it stands for, and that, in fact, embraces the idea that it is fundamentally out of sync philosophically with the rest of the Union’s member states. Thus, far from being the last straw for a struggling polity, a Brexit might be just what Brussels needs to reverse course and to gain back the necessary support of its own citizens again.

Photo credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Thomas von der Dunk is a cultural historian and political commentator currently working as a research fellow in the department of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and is also a columnist for the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

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