There has been quite a bit of talk recently about a British exit from the EU. Playing on the reference to a Greek exit, “Grexit”, the Economist’s Bagehot column took up the theme. In the UK, Eurosceptic Conservatives have jumped on the recent Eurozone crisis deals to suggest that unless the UK leaves the EU, it will find itself tied down by all sorts of new measures and rules. This debate has become particularly acute given that banking supervision, and financial market supervision more generally, has become a key part of the reform agenda for Eurozone member states. The position of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is that a referendum on membership is not ruled out but the government’s preferred option is to renegotiate the UK’s relationship to the EU.
In his column, Bagehot makes the interesting point that if the UK does leave the EU, it will be more in the manner of the way the Czech Republic and Slovakia split in the early 1990s. This was, as the late Tony Judt put it, in the manner of an accidental divorce. It had been neither the explicit goal of Klaus nor of Meciar to push for a split but in the end it happened nonetheless. As Judt put it: “not many people were overjoyed at the result, but nor was there lasting regret” (Judt, 2005, p659). There is always the possibility that something similar happens for the UK and if so, it will be a reflection more of impassivity over Europe than of strong sentiments in any particular direction.
It is much more likely that “Britxit” never comes to pass. The UK’s close place at the heart of the EU is often underestimated given the Eurosceptic froth of much of the UK press. Looking at how the EU works and the direction integration has taken over recent decades, the British contribution is difficult to ignore. A wider EU, that took in former Soviet block states, and one organized more loosely along the lines of continuous cooperation between national officials and national representatives, has become increasingly the norm. This reflects British preference more than it does the preference of other powerful states. In some areas, like cooperation in policing, the British have a formal opt-out yet are massively involved behind the scenes. And though the UK maintains its distance with the EU in terms of financial market integration, it is thoroughly integrated in other areas. Few aspects of policymaking in Whitehall today do not have as an inescapable part of day-to-day operations involvement in EU level policymaking.
When Tony Blair decided to abandon his promise for a referendum on membership of the Euro, he did so largely because he assumed he’s lose. That he would have lost is by no means certain and it is possible that the British population is far less Eurosceptic than its own political elite believes. Perhaps a referendum would be the best way to confound the prejudices of its elite as they are what fuels talk of “Brixit” more than anything else.