This shorter version of last week's piece for the LSE appeared on the Huffington Post.
The dispute between Britain and most of the rest of the EU about the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission has once again raised the question of whether Britain will leave the EU, AKA a 'Brexit'. While most discussion focuses on whether or not Britain will leave the EU, less attention has been paid to how a Brexit might happen in practice.
Monday, June 30, 2014
Friday, June 27, 2014
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
A piece for the LSE's EUROPP Blog.
Given the dispute over the new President of the European Commission, and UKIP’s success in the European Parliament elections, the UK’s EU membership is likely to be a key issue in the campaign for the 2015 UK general election. Tim Oliver writes that while a great deal has been written on whether the UK will leave the EU, less attention has been paid to how a ‘Brexit’ might occur in practice. He assesses five ways in which the UK might leave the European Union, noting that even if the country were to give up its membership there would still be a number of unresolved questions as to the kind of UK-EU relationship which could emerge.
How Britain might withdraw from the EU is an often overlooked question in comparison to the broader topic of whether it will ever decide to do so. With the Conservative Party, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP all committed – in differing ways – to holding an in-out referendum at some point, it might be assumed that this is the way Britain will leave. But the referendum route is in fact one of five ways a ‘Brexit’ might happen.
Each of the five ways available varies in practicality. Some are little more than academic and legal exercises that stand little chance of survival in the real world. Nevertheless, they are worth thinking about as they provide an overview of what options are open to Britain and the EU. They raise questions about what ‘out’ means. They also shed light on where the UK-EU relationship could end up. We must not forget that a Brexit is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is debatable whether or not a Brexit can deliver the end of settling the Europe question in British politics or the British question in European politics.
1. The big bang: a referendum supporting withdrawal triggers Article 50 TEU
The most widely anticipated route by which Britain could leave the EU is via a nation-wide referendum where the result supports withdrawal. This could happen in several ways. A government could implement a manifesto commitment to holding a referendum. How this happens will depend on the party in government. David Cameron has committed the Conservative Party to holding an in-out referendum after an attempted renegotiation of Britain’s membership.
It could also occur thanks to a treaty change in the EU or a significant transfer of powers. This would trigger the current 2011 European Act requiring a referendum in the event of such a change. This is also the situation for which the Lib Dems and Labour have promised to hold an in-out referendum. Finally, a referendum could be caused by the House of Commons voting through a private members bill requiring a referendum. Whatever causes a referendum, the campaign, vote and result will be a spectacular political moment – a ‘big bang’ – in the history of Britain and the EU. Whether or not it will settle the Europe question in British politics is another matter.
A result supporting withdrawal would likely lead HM Government to trigger Article 50 TEU. The British Prime Minister would submit to the European Council written notice of Britain’s intention to negotiate a withdrawal. Article 50 sets out how the EU is to handle the withdrawal of a member state. It sets a timeframe of two years for negotiations. The Commission would recommend a lead negotiator for the EU that is then approved by the Council. Negotiations would cover both the withdrawal of Britain, and the framework for a new post-withdrawal EU-UK relationship. Separate negotiations would also need to take place within the remaining EU to change it to reflect the withdrawal of Britain.
The final deal offered to Britain would be subject to the approval of the European Parliament followed by the European Council acting by qualified majority vote. It will therefore be a deal that has to suit the EU, not just the UK. The European Parliament, Council, or even British Government or Parliament could reject the deal. In such an event an extension to the negotiations may become necessary, but this can only be agreed upon with the unanimous agreement of Britain and the rest of the EU.
2. The big leap: a unilateral decision by a British government to withdraw
A British government could declare it intends to withdraw from the EU without seeking the approval of the British people through a referendum and without negotiating a withdrawal with the rest of the EU. The first step to achieving this would be a vote by the House of Commons to repeal the 1973 European Communities Act that took Britain into the then EEC. Under international law there is nothing – in theory – to stop Britain, or any other member state, unilaterally withdrawing from an organisation such as the EU. And under the uncodified British constitution, the sovereignty of parliament means the executive does not need to seek the approval of the British people through a referendum.
Even if the British government did secure approval through a referendum and the big bang scenario was then played out, Britain would not necessarily need to resort to Article 50 and negotiate with the EU because under international law it has the right to withdraw anyway. It was the existence of this right that led to objections to the introduction of Article 50 TEU during the 2001-2003 Convention on the Future of Europe. For supporters of Article 50 its existence provides a degree of order for what would be an unprecedented event. But Article 50 only compels the EU to seek a negotiation with the withdrawing member state. It cannot require Britain, or any withdrawing member state, to reciprocate.
This, however, is a largely academic exercise. Ignoring Article 50 would be a big leap into the unknown. A refusal to follow the procedures set down, or to leave with only a vote of the House of Commons and thus without a referendum, would produce considerable political, legal and economic uncertainty in both Britain and Europe. This option may then be plausible in theory, but reality dictates that a referendum would be necessary and that negotiations would need to take place to create ‘a proper treaty framework, regulating the time frame and details of the divorce.’
3. The big kick: the EU expels Britain
A unilateral decision by a British government to withdraw from the EU might seem difficult, but is less so than the third option of the EU expelling Britain. Should Britain’s behaviour and demands become so unacceptable to the EU then the other member states and EU institutions could try to find a way to kick Britain out. This is the least likely scenario because of the legal and political problems this would present to the EU. The EU’s treaties contain no provision for the expulsion of a member. Even suspension is difficult, the EU having available to it through Article 7(2) and (3) TEU only limited options to suspend certain membership rights of a member state. These steps are also intended to encourage the errant member state to correct its behaviour rather than as a first step towards banishing it.
Any attempt to expel Britain would require unanimous agreement by the rest of the EU, no easy feat in itself. It would lead not only to the British government seeking to annul such a decision, but private individuals, companies and organisations – from Britain, the rest of the EU and elsewhere – could also take legal action against the EU. Expulsion would also add to the animosity between Britain and the EU. Relations within the EU could also be strained, with some states fearing they may be next.
4. The big freeze: a passive expulsion from the EU
Rather than confronting Britain head on with a deliberate attempt to expel it, there is the possibility the EU may get rid of Britain through a passive expulsion. The same antagonistic behaviour by Britain that could provoke a big kick could instead lead – and in some cases already has led – to some in the EU reciprocating with cold indifference, further weakening relations. Just as confrontation with an unwanted and unhappy guest can be avoided by making them feel so uncomfortable that they leave of their own accord, so too might the rest of the EU feel it would be easier to make things so uncomfortable that Britain leaves the EU of its own accord.
By itself this ‘big freeze’ approach would not get rid of Britain. It would instead lead to Britain going down the route of a ‘big bang’ or ‘big leap’. Alternatively, instead of isolating and ignoring Britain, the rest of the EU may opt to discuss openly with Britain the possibility that it may be better for all concerned if it took the route of a ‘big leap’ or ‘big bang’. The problem here is that the UK has been isolated in the past and hung on.
5. The big divide: the rest of the EU leaves Britain behind
It may come to pass that the way Britain leaves the EU is not through a referendum, a unilateral decision to withdraw, or a direct or passive expulsion. Instead a Brexit may happen through a slower and gradual process of changes to the EU whereby Britain does not leave the EU, but the EU leaves Britain behind. Developments here will revolve around the evolution of the Eurozone. If these contribute further to the emergence of a two-speed or multispeed EU then Britain could find itself increasingly isolated and locked out of key decision making forums. As such Britain would find itself outside the EU thanks to moves by the rest of the EU to create new institutions from which Britain is excluded.
The British government has taken steps to try to prevent the emergence of any such inner-EU within a wider-EU. But David Cameron’s veto of the fiscal compact in December 2011 showed that if necessary the rest of the EU would go around Britain to set up arrangements separate to the EU and thus beyond Britain’s reach. This is not what the rest of the EU wanted to do. Some states, especially non-Eurozone members such as Sweden and Poland, remain fearful that they too will be cut out. But compared to Britain, they continue to display a commitment to the EU that is not often found in the UK.
A continued failure by the EU and Britain to reach agreement over the future direction of the EU may lead the rest of the EU – Eurozone and other non-Eurozone members – to conclude that further such developments will be necessary to create a divide that excludes Britain. It is, of course, debatable whether or not the rest of the EU could ever create an entirely new organisation that leaves Britain in a defunct, redundant outer tier. But the possibility remains one that we should not overlook given the difficulties of expulsion and the possibility Britain may not withdraw, and that even if the British electorate were to vote to remain in the EU, the country is likely to remain an awkward partner.
The Bigger Picture
Thinking about how a Brexit may happen reminds us of three important facts about UK-EU relations. First, there is no neat and simple way in which Britain could leave the EU. All five options present a myriad of legal, political and other difficulties for Britain and the EU. The withdrawal of a member state from the EU is an unprecedented event, and one which would be difficult not only for Britain but also for the EU.
Second, whether a referendum sanctions withdrawal or the EU somehow expels Britain or isolates it, neither Britain nor the EU will be able to completely ignore the other. Britain will remain a major European power, with Britain’s population expected to overtake Germany’s in the next 20-30 years. Similarly, unless there is some catastrophic failing of the Eurozone and disintegration of the Union, the EU will remain Europe’s predominant political organisation. Brussels will be the lodestar for much of European politics, economics and security (if not perhaps military security). It is where Britain will spend a large amount of its time looking towards.
This all begs the question then of what ‘out’ means. As noted at the start, a Brexit is a means to an end and not an end in itself. For each of the above scenarios, ‘out’ is a difficult concept. A referendum or unilateral declaration of withdrawal cannot compel the EU to give the UK what it wants beyond an official withdrawal. What ‘out’ the UK then secures will be shaped by what the rest of the EU and other powers such as the United States are willing to grant it in terms of new or recalibrated political and economic relations. Similarly, expulsion or exclusion would not solve the longer-term problem for the EU of how to deal with Britain.
Monday, June 23, 2014
The implications of a ‘Brexit’ for the UK has been endlessly discussed, but its implications for the EU and other international powers has hardly been considered. Tim Oliver explores the complex set of possibilities and implications at the European and international level that both the UK and EU need to keep in mind as they move forward.
UKIP’s success in the recent European Parliament elections has once again raised questions about whether Britain is headed towards an EU exit, AKA ‘a Brexit’. The likelihood of this happening remains open to debate. But the debate is focused almost entirely on what such a move could mean for Britain. In contrast, with only a few exceptions, the implications for the EU and wider international relations are given next to no thought. Ed Miliband’s warning that Britain risks sleepwalking towards an EU exit should be heeded by the rest of the EU who appear to be asleep to what it could mean for them. The same might be said for other powers such as the USA. A British exit will change the EU and European integration with implications for the UK, transatlantic relations and the West.
An EU without the UK could go a number of ways. When added to the Eurozone’s problems, a Brexit could tip the EU towards being a more inward-looking, less Atlantic focused union shaped more by the outlook of smaller states and whose centre of power has moved eastwards. Alternatively it could strengthen the position of Germany. Or, more neatly aligned with the Eurozone and rid of its most awkward member, the EU could tip towards a United States of Europe. While some other states may contemplate following the UK, hoping a Brexit will reveal the EU to be a house of cards that comes crashing down as soon as the British leave will likely only prove true if a Brexit combines with wider problems in the EU to trigger a crisis in Germany, the EU’s heart. While Britain has contributed much to the EU, it alone has not held the EU back, caused all its problems or held it together.
Even if, as seems likely, quitting the EU damages the UK’s standing, a Britain outside the EU will remain a major European power. It will be one of the EU’s biggest trading and political relationships. By the 2040s it will have overtaken Germany as the most populous country in Europe. Britain will therefore not disappear from EU politics, just as it is nonsense to think a vote to leave the EU means the EU disappears from British politics. From the outside London may well attempt to use its new position to change or redraw Europe’s regional politics, moving arrangements away from the politically driven European Union towards a more traditional state based trading system with NATO (read USA) as the security provider. Whether a Brexit can redraw the regional politics of Europe will depend in large part on how the UK copes outside the EU and how the EU copes without it.
A Brexit offers the EU and Europe some possible positive opportunities. A new arrangement with the UK on the outside could offer ways forward in relations with Norway, Turkey, Iceland, Switzerland, or even Ukraine; states that may never join the EU but with whom the EU will always have – or seek – a close relationship. However, the UK and/or the EU may be unwilling to extend any UK-EU model to these other states, and those states may themselves reject such an offer preferring their own individually tailored models instead.
Despite what some in the UK may hope, any new UK-EU relationship will depend largely on what the remaining EU (including the European Parliament) is prepared to grant it. The UK will be the junior partner, despite the UK’s significant trading and political relations with the EU. And what the EU will agree to depends in large part on what type of EU emerges as the British depart and what it decides is in its best interests. A more protectionist inward looking EU, or one that worries about the possible appeal of a UK outside the EU, may be in no mood to grant the UK a good deal. Alternatively, an EU that feels more confident and united could simply expect the UK to fall in line with whatever is offered.
A wider view of a Brexit would also be taken by powers outside Europe. For countries such as China,Australia, New Zealand or Canada, the EU is better off with the UK inside it. But a Brexit will not make them give up on the rest of the EU, a multilateral relationship that is collectively more important than their bilateral relationship with the UK. Even for Washington, a Brexit would not simply be about what it would mean for UK-US relations. The larger US-European relationship, while more brittle than the smaller but deeper UK-US one, is cumulatively of greater strategic significance to Washington. If the exit of one of Europe’s leading international and military powers further complicated European cooperation on foreign, security and defence – long sought by the USA – then it could further weaken efforts to strengthen the European side of NATO. This would exacerbate US frustrations about Europe that developments in Ukraine have once again exposed and deepened.
And the future of transatlantic relations rests on more than just NATO. Any attempt by the UK to secure a UK-US free trade deal would be a poor substitute for a much larger, and globally significant, US-EU trade pact. With the UK already heavily linked to the US, an EU exit would likely lock it in even more, leaving it able only to offer up the military assets it still has in hopes of retaining influence over US decision making. Meanwhile other allies in Europe would grow in importance for the USA. The UK would be stuck, unable to do anything such as pivot to Asia, but with its primary political, security and defence concerns still concentrated in its regional home of Europe and the North Atlantic, but where it has spurned and risked locking itself out of the predominant political, economic, security – if not traditional defence – organisation of Europe. It would be a losing scenario for all concerned.
It is this complex set of possibilities and implications at the European and international level that both the UK and EU need to keep in mind as they move forward. For the EU and its member states it will be the implications for their national interests and the wider implications for Europe as a whole that will shape any decision as to whether – to borrow from President Lyndon Johnson – it is better to have the UK inside the EU tent pissing out, or outside the tent pissing in. For the UK, focusing on what is the best or worst exit deal or renegotiated relationship for Britain overlooks that this is more a question of what is good or bad for the rest of Europe. And that is not a question the British alone can answer.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
A piece for the LSE's British Politics and Policy Blog.
It should come as no surprise that UKIP failed to make significant gains in London during the recent European and local elections. A global and European city that benefits immensely from how the UK is currently run and which is home to the UK’s largest non-British population was never going to be fertile territory for a party campaigning on an anti-immigration, anti-Europe and anti-London ticket. The results highlight that Britain’s capital city is growing into a more distinct political space in the UK, writes Tim Oliver.
The local and European election results provided UKIP with a series of spectacular gains across the UK. Coming first in the UK’s elections to the European Parliament meant they became the first party since the start of the twentieth century to secure first place in a UK-wide election ahead of the Conservatives, Labour or Liberals. The party even secured its first MEP in Scotland, a part of the UK often (if not entirely accurately) seen as more pro-European.
But UKIP’s achievements – especially in the local election results that took place on the same day across certain areas of England and Wales – were dampened by the party’s inability to make a breakthrough in London. Securing only ten councillors across London played a part in lowering UKIP’s overall projected national share of the vote to 17% (on a turnout UK-wide of about 34%), less than the 23% from local elections in 2013. UKIP’s one London MEP was elected on a 6.10% increase in votes, but with 16.87% of London’s votes this was UKIP’s second lowest regional result and increase in support after their result inScotland. The party that succeeded in London was Labour. As I argued in March, London has long been difficult terrain for UKIP with polling showing Londoners to be amongst the least Eurosceptic in the UK.
Many point to London’s large international and immigrant population as the reason for Londoners not backing UKIP and its policies on immigration. Approximately 36.7% of London’s population (according to the 2011 census) was born outside the UK. About 10.3% come from elsewhere in the EU, with a larger proportion coming from areas such as South Asia. London’s white-British population remains the largest single group of residents, but is now around 45% of the city’s population. As home to the UK’s largest ethnic minority communities, Londoners have long grappled with the politics of immigration and racial politics. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage might have felt awkward at hearing no English spoken on a train journey into central London, but for most Londoners hearing a multitude of other languages spoken is an everyday experience. London’s constantly changing population also makes putting down roots unnecessary. As Tony Travers argues, ‘The word Londoner is an entirely inclusive concept’. For Tessa Jowell, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and former Minister for London, ‘These [2014 election] results show London as an open, tolerant and diverse city’. Survey data confirms Londoners are less racist than people elsewhere in the UK.
As an explanation this can only go so far. As Tim Stanley has pointed out, London is not exactly immune from racial problems having seen major riots caused in part by racial tensions and the Metropolitan Police continues to face allegations of institutional racism. Londoners are also more than aware that the city’s insanely high property prices are in part thanks to an influx of rich foreign residents. London also showed something of a divided response with support for UKIP being found in London’s outer areas such as Havering and Bexley.
London’s population also gives it a unique identity which causes some problems and opportunities for UKIP. The 2011 census showed that more Londoners (about 31%) identify themselves as British than in any other region of Great Britain. This should not be a surprise given London is home to British institutions such as the monarchy, the BBC or the British Museum. Black and ethnic minority groups are also more likely to identify with being British than English, and they constitute a large proportion of London’s population. So why did the party that labels itself with ‘UK’ struggle with voters who more closely identify themselves with being British? Research by the IPPRinto English identity found that people who identify themselves as British tend to be less Eurosceptic than those who identify themselves as English. As Ben Wellings has argued: ‘Euroscepticism is the most formed-up expression of English grievance and an ideology that provides the political content for English nationalism’. At the same time we must not overlook that 37% of Londoners identified themselves as English, and Scotland also elected its first UKIP MEP. UKIP then can secure support across the UK and identities, but the low results in both London and Scotland reminds us that it remains in large part a party driven by an emerging – or changing – English nationalism.
London’s British identity sits with its international one. A large part of the material wealth of London is tied to the economic vibrancy of the European market as part of wider transatlantic and global markets. Britain might not be in the Euro, but that does not stop London handling more euro foreign-exchanges than the Eurozone combined. Nor does it stop London being the headquarters of one hundred of Europe’s top 500 companies. Companies such as Goldman Sachs and the Lord Mayor of London have warned of the cost to London and the UK of an exit from the EU. As the BBC’s Economics editor Robert Preston argues: ‘Much of the rest of the UK sees globalisation and its manifestations – such as immigration – as disempowering, impoverishing and a threat. Whereas for Londoners, globalisation is an economic competition they are apparently winning’.
London also wins from a political setup and relationship with both the UK and the EU that works well for it. Its mayor, assembly, the organisations that represent the ‘City of London’ such as its Lord Mayor, its numerous councils and groups, MPs, MEPs and Lords, and its intimate connections with British government in Whitehall, Royal Court in St James’s, and the UK Parliament and Supreme Court in Westminster give it a combined political voice far greater than anywhere else in the UK. The British media are also based largely in London. As a result the EU and UK Government do not appear as remote and uncontrollable as they might in other areas of the UK. There could be no clearer example than David Cameron wielding the UK’s EU veto to defend the interests of financial institutions based largely in London. As Mayor of London, former Conservative MP Boris Johnson has rarely held back from attacking the EU, perhaps better capturing any unease amongst Londoners about the EU than UKIP have been able to. Londoners might be less Eurosceptic than people elsewhere in the UK, but that level of support is hardly overwhelming and could decline should the EU-City of London relationship break down.
London’s privileged position, population and identity has not passed unnoticed. UKIP’s own campaign was in part ‘anti-London’. ‘London’ has become a by-word for something that is distant, strange and out of control, similar to Brussels across the EU or Washington D.C. in the US. While London has long been a place slightly apart from the rest of Britain, today people across the UK, and especially England, increasingly view London as a place far removed from the country they feel they inhabit. Suzanne Evans, a former Conservative councillor for Merton who defected to UKIP but lost her seat in the recent local elections, blamed UKIP’s poor performance in London on its young, educated, cultured, media-savvy population that can’t understand the heartache felt by the rest of the country. This might have been picked over for her insinuation that UKIP supporters elsewhere are old, not educated (to a certain extent Londoners are indeed younger and on average better qualified) or cultured and that the ‘media-savvy’ were somehow duped by media criticism of UKIP. But her warning that London is becoming a place apart from the rest of the UK has been echoed elsewhere.
It is easy to see why London appears headed in a direction far removed from the rest of the UK. We should not be surprised that London is developing as a more distinct political space – and one seeking more autonomy – in a way similar in some respects to that witnessed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some developments in London have gone further than in other areas of the UK and are likely to continue spreading across England and the rest of the UK. By 2050 a third of Britain’s population could be from black and ethnic minority groups, UK central government is coming under increased pressure to cede powers to areas such as Scotland and within England, Britain’s various identities are in flux, and the EU and globalisation will remain realities London, England and the rest of the UK cannot run away from.
This presents a series of dilemmas for UK government and British politics. In order to avoid London moving too quickly ahead of the rest of the UK, the UK government will come under increased pressure to more fairly distribute the economic gains from the EU and globalisation that are currently accruing mostly to London. It will need to do so while tackling unease about immigration and population change, while also allowing less centralised control so decisions on such matters can be taken at a more local, city or regional level. Such decentralisation may offer a way for Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to better manage their appeal to both metropolitan voters and more traditional backers elsewhere. UKIP’s support elsewhere in the UK serves as a reminder that while London matters because of its size, economic and political power and because it is something of a sign of the Britain to come, focusing on the capital city will not be enough to win elections and manage the whole UK.