Europe Continues to Splinter: A British Exit Looms Large as Schengen Dies



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Europe Continues to Splinter: A British Exit Looms Large as Schengen Dies

Political Theory

February 22, 2016

Late last week, UK PM David Cameron announced that UK and EU officials had come to an agreement that would give the UK a better “deal” as a member of the EU. That is, Cameron was forced by euroskeptics in Britain to extract concessions from the EU government as a condition of staying in the EU. 

The hope among europhiles is that this will be a enough to convince the British voting population to vote to stay in the EU in a coming June 23 referendum on EU membership. 

As far as europhiles are concerned, the response has not yet been encouraging. In spite of the new deal, which gives the UK more control over migrants and EU regulations, Boris Johnson, mayor of London, has committed to the “Vote Leave” side in favor of Brexit. Johnson joins several high-ranking members of Cameron's own cabinet,  including Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. 

What are the repurcussions of the new deal floated by Cameron and the EU? At the very least, it will likely lead to demands from other EU member that they be able to re-negotiate the terms of their membership also. If the UK gets a special deal in return for staying in the EU, why shouldn't everyone else? It doesn't take a tremendous amount of insight to see where this goes. 

Indeed, the latest UK negotiations imply that all EU members should be free to renogotiate the terms of their membership at any time. This is how it should be of course, since any decent confederation should be built on the voluntary membership of the member states. (The United States could learn from this experience.)

But that's the best case scenario (from the EU point of view). If a majority of British voters vote to leave, the UK will free itself from the stifling regulations constantly being handed down by the European Parliament. 

Moreover, it's  unclear that there's a large downside for the UK here, since no one is talking about kicking the UK out of Europe's trade zone. The europhile side will imply that a Brexit will cut the UK off from Europe, but as Dan Hannan noted in The Spectator

all the options involve remaining part of the European free-trade zone that stretches from non-EU Iceland to non-EU Turkey. No one in Brussels argues that Britain would leave that common market if it left the EU. Nor, in fairness, do Remainers. Instead, they talk about jobs being ‘dependent on our trade with the EU’, hoping that at least some voters will hear that line as ‘dependent on our membership of the EU’.

But, even more ominous for the europhiles is the fact that some of Europe's richest countries remain outside the EU, and to claim that a vote for Brexit is a vote for poverty is pretty unconvincing. Hannan puts it this way: 

‘So what’s your alternative?’ demand Euro-enthusiasts. ‘D’you want Britain to be like Norway? Or like Switzerland? Making cuckoo clocks? Is that what you want? Is it? Eh?’

Put another way: “Do you want to leave the EU and be like the two richest countries in Europe?” Gee, who would want that

On top of the economic, issues, of course, is the migrant issue, and the new deal with the EU gives the UK more control over that issue, but that may not be enough for voters, even left-wing ones, who may agree with George Galloway for example, that the UK's government policies should be controlled by “British people in a British parliament.” 

The migrant issue has been leading to further divisions elsewhere in the EU, with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary — knows as the Visegrad group or V4 — setting itself up as a political bloc within the EU to oppose Germany and its allies on EU immigration policy. Germany has already hinted, however, that it will use its power within the EU to financially punish countries that do not acquiesce to EU migration policy. 

In this regard, the poorer countries of Eastern Europe are not in a good negotiating position, however. V4 countries receive large subsidies from the EU. 

But, the less powerful regimes of the EU may be willing to risk it if abandoning border control to the EU provides too high a political price at the local level. It's this political calculus that seems to be driving yet another stake through the heart of the Schengen zone, incidentally, with Austria becoming just the latest country to tighten its border controls against the wishes of the European Commission

Were it any one of these things, it might be easy to see how the EU could weather the storm, but with the UK setting a new precedent for extracting concessions from the EU, and with the Schengen zone weakening even more, it's hard to see how the EU resurrects the old feeling of inevitable total union, which was the feeling only five or six years ago. Moreover, we can still only speculate as to the effect of the brewing economic recession that could then strike at the core of the EU's monetary union. 

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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