All relationships are difficult sometimes. One person wants commitment, the other not to be tied down. These divisions can grow over time, and eventually some relationships sadly fall by the wayside. The UK-EU relationship has certainly had its fair share of problems, but after enduring for 40 years the two partners should have reached an amicable plateau—regular bickering, the occasional screaming match, but ultimately with a strong foundation underneath. The reality however is than it its fourtieth year this particular relationship looks as fragile as it ever has before, and with a 2017 membership referendum a very genuine prospect, there will need to be a concerted and genuine effort on both sides to renegotiate, rebalance and prove to a generally sceptical British public that they shouldn’t sign the divorce papers.
As has become standard with British political debate, discussion of the UK and EU’s relationship is largely based on what are euphemistically described as mistruths and misinformation. Important to note is that this comes from both sides—for every UKIP member wailing about how all British law is now dictated by Brussels, there is a Brussels civil servant smoothly spinning that the EU seeks only the bare minimum of powers necessary to run the Union effectively. None of these statements is on their own correct, and if British voters are to be convinced to vote to stay in 2017, a great deal more honesty and openness will be required on both sides. There is a compelling case to be made that the European Union of today—in terms of size, scale and scope—bears little resemblance to the European Economic Community that the British public voted to join in 1975. Many of the changes that have been made have undeniably been for the better—improving efficiency, bringing down trade barriers and helping Eastern European states forge a post-Communist future. But what has been lacking with these changes is an honesty about what the European Union is moving towards, what its ultimate goals are in terms of integration and convergence. And it is this that has led levels of British euroscepticism to increase rather than subside as our membership of the EU reaches its fourtieth anniversary.
The benefits for Britain of membership of the EU are both extensive and difficult to exactly quantify—and as a result will represent the key battleground should a referendum on membership take place in 2017. Business leaders are almost unanimous in their support for continued membership—the nature of the single market makes operating across different European nations, even those with different currencies, immeasurably easier than would otherwise be the case. There is also more in the pipeline designed to increase European efficiency further—as extending the single market to services as well as goods would make it easier for service firms—from plumbers and electricians to lawyers and accountants—to operate on a pan-European basis. The cultural argument is equally strong—Britain should be proud to play its part in a Europe that is hugely strengthened by the interaction and cooperation of its members.
The benefits are obvious, the advantages clear, therefore what exactly is needed to keep this relationship together, to end Britain’s simmering euroscepticism and cement our place within a strong and united Union? The answer is a fundamental renegotiation of the powers that Britain cedes to the EU, a chance to review all that has changed since 1975 and, on an almost line-by-line basis, explore both whether it can be improved upon and—realistically given the political situation—whether it is palatable to the British electorate. The result may well be that the EU agrees to give up control over some areas of British social, justice and welfare policy—in exchange for maintaining the cultural and business benefits that make Britain such a valuable partner. What a 2017 referendum would do is limit the power of UKIP rhetoric, allow the public to understand our relationship with the EU outside of tabloid dramatics, and potentially put the issue of EU membership to bed for a generation. After fourty years of sniping and on occasion even open warfare, those potential benefits seem like a chance to start afresh and reposition Britain within the EU for the long haul. They seem like too good an opportunity to miss.