Written at 8:21 am

The pact between Cameron and the European Council will be worth as long as the UK remains in the EU without hindering the pending reforms. For the British, the advantages of stay outweigh by far the disadvantages.

Opinon piece published in El País

20160411 - El País Eva Vázquez

Photo: El País / Eva Vázquez

The uncertainty hovering the United Kingdom if it decides to leave the EU together with the serious repercussions on the rest of Europe adds drama to a European landscape plagued of unresolved problems: the refugees’ crisis, Jihadist terrorist attacks, an economic crisis that expands its effects into the social field and the political sphere. The EU is going through an extremely difficult moment. The institutions of the Union are gripped by the fear of national Governments of being overwhelmed by the populist arguments. In recent times the temptation of “every man for himself” has spread, even though whenever a country tries to take independent initiatives outside the Community framework, it generates conflicts with their partners without offering effective solutions.

If the Remain supporters win the referendum, and the traditional British pragmatism finally prevails over the emotional messages and the nostalgic who yearn for the “splendid Isolation”, there will be a great relief in almost all the world. The pact between Cameron and his colleagues in the European Council signed in February has undoubted edges – some of which may come close to be incompatible with the Union´s basic principles – and several of its elements are difficult to assume by the supporters of further progress in the integration. At the same time, but for the opposite reasons, the agreement is also rejected by the Eurosceptics. Anyhow, probably it is the least bad of the possible agreements.

However, the high price of that agreement will have been worthwhile as long as the UK remains in the EU without hindering the decisions required to address the European future on solid foundations: the Schengen reform and asylum and legislation, the momentum of external action and security policy, the pending reforms of the Economic and Monetary Union and the deepening of the internal market in areas such as energy, digital or capital markets.

The February agreement explicitly recognizes what the UK has been chasing step by step since the Maastricht Treaty: to become an exceptional and unique case concerning its level of integration and its ambitions as a member of the EU. What until now was a de facto reality happens now to be formally recognized. No other member State occupies such “peripheral” position in the EU, nor will do so in the future. However, it is acceptable. An institution with such strong attachment to Europeanism, like the Jacques Delors – Notre Europe Institute, said in a recent paper that the agreement emphasizes the UK’s differentiation but does not break with any essential principle, even though a closely monitoring of its implementation will be warranted.

The victory of the No would have a high cost for the UK both in economic and political orders, no matter which alternative would be chosen to stay out of the EU. Different possibilities are being considered, from integration into the European Economic Area (Norway), to the signing of a set of bilateral agreements with the EU (Switzerland), negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement (Canada) or the simple reference to the rules of the World Trade Organization. All of them imply serious setbacks regarding the current situation without bringing in exchange the advantages proclaimed by the anti-Europeans. Little by little, the fallacies used by the “No” supporters are becoming exposed. The United Kingdom should choose to continue under Brussels’ regulations without being able to influence its decisions, or alternatively accept their exclusion from the single market. The City, in either case, will no longer enjoy the passport required to operate in continental markets. And alongside with the inevitable loss of market share within the EU and of the attractiveness of foreign investment we should add the consequent diminished British influence both in Europe and in the rest of the world.

Beyond the economy, in such a serious issue as the fight against terrorism, we cannot admit the Eurosceptics to blame the EU for the failures and lack of cooperation between different national police and intelligence services by those who have refused to participate in existing coordination systems no matter how imperfect they may be. On the issue of immigration, which is located at the center of the debate, the facts contradict those who try to wield it as an anti-European argument. There are no significant tensions derived from an excess of labor supply coming from abroad, with the unemployment rate close to a situation of full employment. And the pressure on social spending originated by immigrants and their families remains at perfectly acceptable levels.

Of course, the rest of Europeans also risk a lot with the June 23rd referendum results. We cannot participate actively in a campaign that belongs to those who will exercise their right to vote in less than three months, but the leaders of the other 27 Member States together with those of the Commission and the European Parliament are obliged to express their opinion, as Barack Obama and other relevant voices in the United States – reminding that the “special relationship” between Washington and London would become meaningless in case of Brexit.

Despite the discomfort generated by the conditions that Cameron extracted in the February agreement, we must concur that the advantages of the UK staying in the EU clearly outweigh the drawbacks of keeping a special Member State that doesn’t share some of the objectives of the European integration project that many of us consider more desirable. But going back to the study by the Jacques Delors Institute to which I referred earlier: “To be a part of the EU does not imply necessary to be a Europeanist, it’s enough to prefer to be inside than outside”.

Finally, one senior European official put his fingers on when he said that “after forty years of troublesome presence in the EU, the United Kingdom has exhausted most, if not all, of the political capital he had in the past vis-à-vis its partners”. This must be taken into account after June 23rd either to implement the agreed points to accommodate the UK within the Community framework in case the Yes wins, or to negotiate the future status of the United Kingdom after the triumph of Brexit.

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