To begin with, lets explore the first point of paradox – EU widening. The most recent enlargement of the EU was in 2013 when Croatia joined, paving the way for the potential future expansion to other former-Yugoslavian countries. However the widening that is most significant, especially for the UK, was the 2004 enlargement that brought 10 eastern European states into the Union, along with the small island nation of Malta. So, why would this enlargement benefit the UK rather than provide evidence to leave? The key is at the European-level. EU wide decision-making has always been a very challenging task for both the EU institutions and the national governments of EU Member States; the vast widening of EU policy in 2004, 2007 (when Bulgaria and Romania joined), and 2013 means that it has become far more difficult to achieve solution via consensus. Cameron, and traditionally the UK as a whole, favours an intergovernmental approach – that is, Member States negotiate and eventually form an agreement that everyone can agree on. The UK’s political capital in Europe, despite not being part of the Eurozone or the Schengen Area, remains consistently high. The wider the EU, the harder to achieve consensus, the more difficult the task of ‘ever closer union’ – three words that the Eurosceptic fears. Solutions have been put forward to solve this issue but none have proved hugely successful, such as the attempts to advance the system of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) which is criticised for producing solutions that do not respect the views of all European citizens and a process that is unaccountable. So the UK maintains and, to an extent, gains influence in the EU. Moreover, for the Single Market that the UK wholeheartedly supports, a wider EU means a wider consumer base.
Secondly, the paradox points at the liberal ideology of the EU. Socially, of course, the EU as a whole is seen as being progressively liberal which matches public opinion in the UK, norms of equality for all citizens – whether that is of marriage, suffrage, civil rights etc. Also, and more importantly to the British government, the EU is economically liberal – a criticism that often comes from the left. So, why is the UK threatening to leave if a liberal EU is what it wants? The issue is immigration, and all to often the issues of immigration and the EU viewed as being the same (no doubt the strategy of UKIP and the Eurosceptic press). Immigration is a subject that is both social and economic, liberal social values at the European-level favour the free movement of people – which in principle the UK does not disagree with. Cameron wants EU migrants coming to work in the UK to not receive any unemployment benefits for four years, and to reduce immigration from other EU countries, but the principle of free movement is supported. Cameron wants to reduce the “pull” factors and according to him unemployment benefits is one of them. Economically, Cameron knows that immigration aids growth in the long term so no major conflict between him and his fellow Europeans there – the disagreements are in terms of numbers of migrants, numbers which he must “fit in” with the Conservatives’ attempts of tackling the housing crisis, NHS crisis, local government cuts etc. Immigration is a fact - the long-term trend of economic globalisation involves mass migration of workers; workers in Europe are but a small percentage of the global norm. The UK can’t shut the door and watch the problem pass by, and leaving the EU certainly won’t mean the UK doing this. An economically liberal EU is the style of institutionalised cooperation that the UK can constructively work with over issues, which affect economic growth, such as European-wide migration.
Thirdly, the EU is more Anglophone that it has ever been. English is the first language used at the European-level and a language shared by the vast majority of Europeans. But what this represents is far greater – the EU has adapted because of the UK. While Germany and France seem to dominate the European agenda, especially in monetary policy, the UK has over the decades managed to secure itself a number of opt-ins and opt-outs. Yes, the UK embarrassed itself over its handling of the Junker affair and it is true to say that the mainstream British parties have decided to isolate themselves from the European parties in the European Parliament – most obviously the Conservatives when they pulled out of the centre-right EPP (European People’s Party) and lost a significant amount of influence in one of the key institutions. However the stubbornness of Prime Ministers past, such as Thatcher’s success in gaining the rebate for Britain in 1987 and Major’s negotiating Britain out of many Treaty clauses at Maastricht, has led to Britain getting a surprisingly good deal out of EU membership.
For those of us who are pro-European, it’s depressing to see the UK refusing to take part in driving EU policy and would happily see the UK becoming further involved in Europe. Yet the UK – the “awkward partner” of the EU – has managed to be part of a Europe that does work for the UK. Indeed, the paradox of Brexit is astonishing: the EU is wider, so policy deepening is slower and harder to achieve as well as the Single Market gaining a wider consumer base; the EU is more liberal, which economically is in line with the current mainstream in UK politics; and the EU is more Anglophone, representing the UK’s ability to adapt areas of EU policy and develop British political capital. Of course the EU is not ideal, and everyone has different opinions on the subject, but historically the UK has not had it better when it comes to its relationship with the rest of Europe, which makes it all the more fascinating why now the UK government is threatening to exit the EU.