By Inge Boets, Managing Director
Brexit, the construed term to allude to the UK’s potential separation from the European Union, has been a trending topic for the past two years to the point that has become part of its brand identity.
Disenchantment with the EU has been a common occurrence since the UK joined the EU in 1973. This has given the Member State a reputation of playing-hard-to-get: fickle, high maintenance but a valuable asset in the Union.
The UK-EU relationship has however evolved to the point that the current marital predicament resembles the famous Clash-song “Should I stay or Should I go”. Yet this implied question also marks the shared values, interests and history.
The United Kingdom, by political design a union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern-Ireland, combines very different cultural traditions and projects. It has a firm grasp on the difficulties of managing these different identities while professing its common interests. This was recently on display during the Scottish Independence referendum in September 2014. The contradiction in the arguments the UK put forward in its plea for Scotland to stay within the Union and its stance vis-a-vis the European Union can’t hereby go unnoticed.
Better together has been the blueprint of the European Union since its inception. The debate whether the EU should remain the sum of its parts or go beyond, is also part of that blueprint; A debate that the UK has excelled in, for better or worse. The UK’s role as guardian of an alternative political thought has an important value but there are boundaries to the Europe à la carte.
The insular mentality and the imperial longing to days past as the “Perfidious Albion” have shown their limits on many occasions, especially in the last few years where close cooperation and common regulation saved the day.
There is always a give and take to any relationship but the benefits of close cooperation outweigh the costs of going alone and become the dependent party in the negotiations for access; asking for more as a modern Oliver Twist.
Aside from the economies of scale argument, there is also the concept of brand Britain that has been part of the cultural identity of scores of Europeans. The emotional and familiar connection through the arts for instance is unparalleled but also products seen as quintessential British have been promoted from beyond the borders with the EU as main trading partner. The jury is still out whether this would have an influence in case of a Brexit but emotional connections are capricious and the feeling of belonging in flux.
The upcoming elections and a potential referendum in 2017 will keep our eyes firmly set on the UK. How this will play out with its Presidency of the EU in 2017 is everybody’s guess but it promises to be, as the British tend to say, interesting.