One could argue — and some, like UKIP leader Nigel Farage, already do — that the concessions British Prime Minister David Cameron obtained late on Friday from other European Union leaders in order to stay in the bloc are meaningless. Or one could rejoice in a victory as Cameron does. That won’t change a fundamental fact: The UK is not really part of the EU anyway. The negotiations that resulted in Friday’s deal were an elaborate public-relations charade played out for Cameron’s domestic audience and for the international media with its “EU is falling apart” narrative.
Cameron asked for the right to curtail benefits for migrant workers from other EU countries for 13 years, but he got seven years instead. Cameron asked for an effective veto over EU legislation but instead got an assurance that any such legislation will take into account the interests of countries that aren’t part of Europe’s monetary and banking unions. Cameron wanted an opt-out of the EU treaties’ goal of an “ever closer union” and got a declaration explaining that this only applied to those countries that wanted it.
In reality, the UK was, and remains, about as much of an EU member as Switzerland — which is not formally part of the union — and, arguably, even less. The UK doesn’t subscribe to the EU’s common-borders policy or borderless free movement, described by the Schengen agreement. Meanwhile, Switzerland has borderless travel with EU countries.
Since 2007, the UK has had an opt-out of Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, allowing U.K. courts to define basic human rights without reference to European law. Well, Switzerland also defines these rights at its own discretion.
Switzerland has a tougher regime for migrant workers from the EU than the U.K. does. It allows most of them to accept employment offers, but it kicks out everyone who applies for benefits. The UK would like to do the same, and Friday’s agreement is a small step along this path. I guess the somewhat more lenient work-immigration rules the UK still has compared with Switzerland can be seen as a trade-off for wanting no part of Schengen.
It suits everyone fine that the UK is an EU member in name only. Both sides need a free-trade regime. Germany and France are the second- and third-biggest trade partners of the U.K., together accounting for greater trade volumes than the No. 1 partner, the U.S. For Germany, the U.K. is the No. 3 trading partner; for France, it’s No. 4. Undermining that would do no one any good. At the same time, the EU would look woefully incomplete without Europe’s third-most-populous country. It’s OK to do without Norway, but the UK would be too big to keep outside the European orbit.
Anything more than this has always been optional. Contrary to a belief that is for some reason widespread in the UK, Brussels doesn’t want to force anyone into deeper integration. Idealistic projects such as the EU are for enthusiastic volunteers. Everyone else has always been able to opt out of various parts of the union, and those not wanting to integrate at the same speed have never been punished.
Friday’s agreement says that the EU treaties allow for the non-participation of one or more Member States in actions intended to further the objectives of the Union, notably through the establishment of enhanced cooperations. Therefore, such processes make possible different paths of integration for different Member States, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, whilst respecting the rights of those which do not want to take such a course.
Recent events have bared too many tensions and differences between those EU members that have subscribed to tighter unity for Europe to care much about holdouts. These differences can’t be overcome as easily as the essentially meaningless concessions were made. EU leaders have some real work to do.
The June 23 referendum should affirm the U.K.’s position as a nominal EU member. Its likely positive outcome will be no more meaningful than a royal warrant of appointment on a Barbour jacket or a tin of Twinings tea.
Cameron, however, takes too much upon himself when he declares that “Britain will never be part of a European superstate.” The EU is a long-term project, and even if the ruling party and much of the population of a country doesn’t see its benefits now, that doesn’t have to be the case for eternity. After all, it was an Englishman, Charles Dickens, who first used the expression “Never say never.”
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist