Interview: Daniel Fiott
“Leaving the EU would harm the UK’s number one national interest – trade”
If the Tories win the 2015 UK legislative elections, a referendum will be held on the country’s membership of the European Union. This is a campaign pledge Prime Minister David Cameron has made for domestic political reasons in a country where fewer Britons describe themselves as ‘European’, according to opinion polls. Whatever lies ahead, Daniel Fiott, from the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, says, “Leaving the EU would harm the UK's number one national interest; that is, trade.” A senior editor of the influential online journal European Geostrategy, Fiott adds that influenced by the press Britons wrongly believe Brussels imposes economic regulations on the UK. In fact, the British are instrumental in shaping market rules in the EU. What is more, the UK cannot give up its geopolitical “key role” along with Germany and France.
CartaCapital: The Premier David Cameron says that if the Tories win the general elections in 2015 there will be a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Union (EU). Is Cameron trying to get votes from UKIP (UK Independence Party) voters or does he feel the need to listen to UK citizens?
Daniel Fiott: In reality I think the answer is a mixture of both. The main objective for David Cameron is to secure an outright majority in the 2015 general election. I think the Prime Minister is more concerned with divisions within his own party than with UKIP. Indeed, if the Conservative Party is elected David Cameron does not want another term in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and neither does he want to spend another five years in power with his backbenchers rebelling against him on a regular basis or calling for him to stand-down. It is remarkable that the coalition government has stayed together for so long given the delicate political balancing act that presently occurs with the Liberal Democrats and Cameron's rebellious backbenchers. Indeed, UKIP is something of a threat for the Conservatives, but it is a measured threat. I think Cameron realizes that UKIP will be rather successful in the 2014 European Parliament elections, but that this is a good thing as far as the general elections in 2015 go: people tend to ‘protest vote’ in the European Parliament elections rather than in the British general election. UKIP is a factor but the fact remains that UKIP supporters are unlikely to vote Conservative anyway – Cameron is unlikely to sway them in their votes. There is a bigger problem, however: large parts of the British public do want to have their say over the UK's membership of the EU but the debate is being framed in terms of narrow party interests and personalities rather than on the real benefits and costs of being in the EU.
CC: The former Tory foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind says that being outside the EU would be ‘damaging’ for the UK. Do you agree, and if so in what way?
DF: I believe Sir Malcolm Rifkind is right. This is not to say that the UK would not survive outside of the EU. We are not looking at the Dark Ages if the UK leaves the EU. Indeed, I think it is probably one of the few countries in Europe that is well-placed to exist outside of the EU if it did leave. But one needs to be careful here. Leaving the EU would harm the UK’s number one national interest; that is, trade. Presently, the British help shape single market rules that relate to jobs, goods, services, consumer standards, etc., and to leave the EU would be an effective surrender of these powers. Many people assume that ‘Brussels’ forces the UK to adopt regulation after regulation on many areas of the economy, but they do not really consider the extent to which British interests are reflected in internal market rules. The British have influenced a range of rules that make the EU a better and stronger market, and this must continue. This is not to speak of the geopolitical rationale for remaining in the EU. An historical cornerstone of British foreign policy in Europe is that balance and order should at all times be achieved on the continent, and that the British have a key role in this. I think France and Germany recognize the importance of having a third large power such as Britain in the EU.
CC: Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is against this anti-European sentiment in the UK. Could there be a rift between Liberal Democrats and the Tories on how to deal with the EU?
DF: There are clear differences between the two parties in the governmental alliance. However, so far the coalition partners have managed to stay focused on largely non-European issues. They are both focused on the economy as a key narrative keeping the partners together. Indeed, one will notice that much of the ‘noise’ about the proposed EU referendum is coming from within the Conservative Party rather than between the coalition partners. This is also why David Cameron is linking the EU referendum with the 2015 general election. By this time both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will be in election mode and this is when each party can air their differences over the EU. The interesting point from my perspective is whether the Liberal Democrats will actually come out strongly in favour of the EU in their 2015 manifesto. The Liberal Democrats are likely to be the biggest losers in the 2015 general election, and I suspect that in a bid to shore up votes they may try to play down the EU as a policy issue and focus on the economic policies they have developed in government.
CC: According to polls, fewer UK citizens describe themselves as European than, say, French and Poles. Do the British feel different/superior to continental Europeans, particularly the southern ones?
DF: This is an interesting question. I think an answer lies in the way a lot of the British media portray the word ‘European’ in their coverage. You see, for a lot of Britons the word ‘European’ is associated with the EU and the so-called ‘army of bureaucrats’ in Brussels ‘imposing laws’ on the British public. This, of course, is hardly the real meaning of European, and far from the truth. I presume the people polled are not referring to ‘European’ in a cultural sense – in this case I think it would be interesting to see how many of those who said ‘no’ to feeling European actually enjoy food and drink and other cultural items emanating from the Continent. I suspect that the French and Poles surveyed have a more holistic understanding of what European means. I do not doubt that some British people do feel different and/or superior to other Europeans. Difference perhaps comes from being an island nation with a proud history – Britain's past as a global empire is an idea which will take some time to die away, and not every Briton has really come to terms with that. Even though the UK is one of the most powerful nations in Europe, I am not too sure that Britain's past failures and successes should automatically lead to feelings of superiority, especially regarding southern neighbours. The south is in grave economic trouble but I’m not sure feelings of superiority really help.
CC: Cameron seems very keen to stop the flow of immigration into the UK, particularly from Bulgaria and Romania. Isn't that again the principle of free circulation? Again, is the premier thinking about right-wing voters in the 2015 general elections?
DF: The government’s decision to try to curtail immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is indeed against the EU principle of the free movement of people. This is one of the four core freedoms in the EU – along with goods, services and capital – and the European Commission and other European governments have raised their voices in protest against this move. The British government has now put themselves in a rather difficult position. Right-wing voters may indeed have something to do with the decision taken by Cameron, but I would not underestimate how big an issue immigration is for a lot of British people. Again, segments of the British media do not help the situation. The real problem is not Bulgarians or Romanians, of course, but rather a failure by this and past governments to put in place a system for immigration that works. Most political parties now agree that more should be done to ensure fair access to welfare benefits, but they have collectively failed to put in place a system early enough – immigration from other EU countries has been possible for some time now, so why have governments taken so long to act? There is a final problem about trying to appease right-wing voters and members of parliament. It seems clear that even if the Prime Minister pushes ahead with all of his plans this will not be enough to appease members of his own party or voters on the right. They will of course demand more.