Goodbye, UK! Taking stock

From 28 to 27 EU Member States
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From 28 to 27 Member States

On 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom officially withdrew from the European Union after 47 years of membership. To mark the occasion, a total of 10 million fifty-pence pieces were once again minted on the British island – this time with the right date and bearing the words “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations. 31 January 2020”. Boris Johnson’s idea of Big Ben and the bells of all the country’s churches ringing out did not, however, come to fruition.

The EU flag – one star less 

After countless hours of negotiations, frustration and disputes over Brexit, it is finally time to take stock and evaluate nearly half a century of British membership of the European Union. What achievements does the EU owe to the UK?
When asked “What would you thank the United Kingdom for from its time in the EU?”, Prof Piers Ludlow, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, responded by highlighting two central political developments within the EU on which the UK brought considerable influence to bear: the European single market and (Eastern) expansion policy.

The development of the European single market 

The European single market has been high on the UK’s political agenda since the 1980s. Indeed, it was one of the main reasons for the country joining the community. Its interest in the European Community (EC) has always been predominantly economic in nature. The creation of the European single market carried the promise of the economic liberalisation of the EC and an end to trade tariffs within the European Union. This priority led the UK to make numerous compromises in the framework of deals in other sensitive political areas, taking it right up to its pain threshold, in return for promoting the development of the single market. The European single market has been the world’s largest trading zone since 1993: according to a study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the single market increases the income of EU citizens by around €840 per person every year. The UK was one of the driving forces behind it.

European expansion policy versus political integration

Dr Julie Smith, Director of the European Centre at Cambridge University, stressed the United Kingdom’s key role in expansion policy, although she takes a critical view of the political interests behind it. On the one hand, the UK was a proponent of liberal democracy: “if the EU is a good thing for us, why would it not be a good thing for other countries as well?”, Smith explains. In a geopolitical sense, the EU was seen as an opportunity and a transformative power expected to stabilise the region in its Western values.

On the other hand, the UK was pursuing its own political calculation. Its greatest fear was further political integration and a strengthening of the powers of the European institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament, that might challenge the sovereignty of the Member States and hence the power of the Westminster government. For the United Kingdom, therefore, the horizontal integration of eastwards expansion was at the same time a strategic tool to avoid greater vertical political integration of the EU: a real win-win.

A mixed bag of results in environmental policy 

The British membership of the EU has also left its mark on environmental policy – although the country baulked at any increase of European legislation. “The Brits were never the greenest politicians in the EU. Their legacy is a mixed bag”, says Ludlow. Even so, in the early years of its membership, towards the end of the 1970s, the United Kingdom was instrumental in the first European environmental directives, for cleaner water in Europe or in the 1990s the Habitats directive on the protection of biodiversity, for instance. Ironically, it was British Conservative politician Stanley Johnson, the father of current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who played a decisive role in pushing these developments through.  

After these achievements, very few climate policy initiatives originated from the United Kingdom. In recent years, however, the country has once again shown enormous commitment to climate policy, for instance with the energy transition and reform of the common agriculture policy. The latter is one of the key political areas in which British environmental associations consider Brexit to be an opportunity for a transformative environmental policy in the United Kingdom. Negotiations at the European Parliament show, however, France will now have to do without its faithful British partner and fellow proponent of nuclear energy. This shift could be an opportunity for the EU to take a more sustainable approach to the energy transition and moving away from nuclear.

A commitment for women’s rights and antidiscrimination 

In the fight for women’s rights and against discrimination, the United Kingdom turned out to be one of the more progressive European Member States. Its Equality Act actually goes beyond the requirements of the European Union. Many of these initiatives were promoted not so much by the British delegations in the European Parliament as by individual British MEPs and British civil society.

Whilst most of the first British delegations to the European Parliament in the 1970s voted against maternity rights for female employees, Labour MEP Gwyneth Dunwoody was fighting in Strasbourg for women’s rights in the EC during the same legislative period. It was, however, principally the legal battles of British civil society activists against discrimination and the inequality of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual people through the case-law of the ECJ that drove forward European legislation in the field of antidiscrimination and sexual equality.

The European Union without the United Kingdom 

It would be overly simplistic to assume that the decision-making process in the European Union will be generally a lot easier without the United Kingdom on board. Certainly, there are a number of areas in which the UK tended to stand on the brakes, such as financial policy, the deepening of the Eurozone and general defence policy, in which progress may be more achievable. But there is also a concern that British withdrawal will cost the EU much of its prestige not only in defence policy, but in trade policy as well. In these areas, it is particularly important for the EU to create close ties with the UK. In general, consensus-building within the European institutions could actually become more difficult, according to Smith, as many Member States were previously able to hide behind the UK’s oppositional stances within the EU legislative processes and tendency to hold things up. During the Brexit negotiations - she goes on to stress - the EU negotiated with the UK as a single player with a single voice. Now the British have left the building, there will be a need for the remaining Member States to reposition themselves.

Brexit is by no means the end of the story. The British withdrawal from the European Union opens a new chapter of British-European relations. As Ludlow sums up the situation: “Brexit is like an angry teenager, storming out of his parents’ house in high dudgeon and spending the night in the garden shed”. 

Hence in this spirit: Goodbye and see you soon, UK!