Senior figures from the US government have warned Britain of the dangers of sidelining itself in the EU. Professor Iain Begg of the London School of Economics argues exasperation with Britain is on the rise.
A representative of the US State Department, Philip Gordon, told journalists in London this week that the United States wants to "see a strong British voice in the EU." He warned against holding a referendum on the issue, saying it was in America's interest for Britain to stay in an "outward-looking" EU.
The comments come as UK Prime Minister David Cameron prepares to give a much-anticipated speech on Europe that could include plans for a referendum within the next five years.
DW: Professor Begg, you argue that current trends are making a British exit from the European Union more likely. What impact do the comments from the Obama administration have in this debate?
Iain Begg: I think what this tells us is that there's a growing tide of voices saying to Cameron, "Be careful what you wish for here because it's going to have negative repercussions for you."
So would you say that other leaders are losing patience with Britain - an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Gunther Krichbaum, also said this week that a UK referendum may "paralyse Europe?"
Well, it's more than them. Britain's natural allies inside the European Union such as Sweden or Poland … they're getting exasperated as well with Britain's stance. What they see is a Britain which is coming to every meeting saying almost like a member of the Russian Politbüro 'Niet!' 'No! We don't want anything to happen. You may go ahead but if it involves us in any way we're going to block it', and that's causing considerable frustration amongst other leaders, which I think is going to compromise Britain's position both in its capacity to influence new actions and its political clout.
Do you think this will have any effect on David Cameron as he prepares to give his much-awaited speech on Europe later this month?
I think what David Cameron has done is to fall into something of a trap, where he's been talking about this big speech for several months now. And yet it's led to a position where if he doesn't promise something substantial - and in this regard that would mean a referendum on Britain's continuing membership of the European Union - he's going to be seen as weak by the more euroskeptic members of his own party, and indeed by the British population in general. And if he tries to promise too much, he's going to encounter resistance from his fellow leaders in the European Union. So he's in a trap, where he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.
Do you agree with the suggestion put forward by Philip Gordon that any referendum on Britain's role in Europe would be damaging in some way?
Yes, a referendum of any sort is going to be damaging. But we also have to consider what a referendum is. It's a very peculiar political instrument in a country which is not used to it. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of significant referenda that have been held in the UK and they often produce unexpected results. It's perfectly possible for a referendum to become something which yields a result that's based on questions very different from those that were actually posed… So I think that any British government proposing a referendum is taking a risk that the result it gets will not reflect the question that's posed or the underlying issue that's supposed to be resolved.
There's also politically the danger that if Cameron tries to be clever on this and say, "It's not a referendum on whether or not we remain in the European Union, it's a referendum on the changes that I have negotiated," which are at best going to be cosmetic, then he risks not putting the issue to bed. It would come back again.
Is it realistic to think, as many UK euroskeptics do, that if Britain turned its back on the EU, it could compensate by forming closer ties with the US?
I think it's not realistic. It remains the case, in spite of the weakness of the European economy over the last four years, that half of Britain's exports go to other EU nations. The proportion to the US is just over ten percent, so the sheer arithmetic of it doesn't work. In addition, what Britain has to fear in this is that being part of the European Union means that foreign investors see Britain as a relatively attractive place in which to invest in order to sell to the rest of Europe. If Britain were to leave the European Union and then faced some sort of barriers to its exports to other countries in Europe, that would be a significant deterrent to the big Japanese motor manufacturers for instance, which have been a very significant part of Britain's revival of its motor industry. They would say, "We won't close down overnight, but our next investment will be in Slovakia, it won't be in Britain, because we know we'll get full market access." So much would hinge on the nature of the separation … There's no easy pathway for Britain to come out of the European Union that doesn't carry risks, either of economic loss, or loss of influence in the nature of the rules that are set.
Do you think momentum is on the side of the euroskeptics or the pro-Europeans - who may have been boosted in the last few days by these comments from the US and elsewhere?
Well, that's a very good summary of the outcome. Until just before Christmas, it looked like those who were concerned about a possible exit of Britain from the EU were silent. Now we've had both internal statements of concern - business leaders writing to the newspapers for instance - and external voices, such as the Americans and the Germans, saying this is a dangerous path: "Don't do it."
I think on balance these developments are a form of backlash against the direction Cameron has been leading the country.
Iain Begg is a Professorial Research Fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Associate Fellow at foreign-policy think-tank Chatham House.
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