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To What Extent Has Britain Been a 'Semi-Detached' Member of the European Union?

Info: 3244 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 16th Mar 2021 in Politics

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To analyse the extent to which Britain can be said to be a semi-detached member of the European Union (EU), we have to consider the history, the problems with its accession and the domestic and practical constraints. Stephen George (1998) outlined the view of Britain as a semi-detached member, coining the phrase 'awkward partner' to describe the challenges and difference Britain faces as an EU member in his book An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community, George (1998), outlined four factors of Britain's detachment from the EU including; domestic political constraints, economic problems and adjusting to membership, adjusting to EU operation and further argued that increased pressure on Atlanticism meant Britain was continually looking away from Europe in its quest to remain a world leader.

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While there can be little doubt that Britain has and always will be a semi-detached member of the EU, this essay will focus on analysing the evidence pertaining to Britain as a player in the EU and to what extent this evidence is proof for its detachment. It will analyse this from the view of the historical evidence such as the problems adjusting to membership, the domestic evidence including Euroscepticism caused by the need for sovereignty and, practical evidence, including Britain's opt-out strategy from seminal agreements within the EU, like the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

Although the EU - then the European Economic Community (EEC) - was established in 1957, Britain only joined as a member in 1973 after initially applying in 1963. Some argued that this delay in joining is one of the reasons Britain is argued to be a semi-detached member. By the point they were able to join, the reason for doing so was solely economic as the - by now stable - EEC had begun imposing external tariffs, and Britain desired to increase its presence by connecting to a "more dynamic free-trade area" (Skidelsky, 2018). In this post-war era, Britain also had to look to solidifying its position as a world leader and moving away from what Winston Churchill (1948) argued to be the three 'spheres of influence'. The three spheres included the Commonwealth, English speaking nations and Europe, however, through the collapse of the Empire and the rising threat of communism overshadowing US foreign policy, Britain looked to strengthen its focus on Europe, its last remaining stronghold. Despite its reasoning, Britain faced resistance and attempts to join the six founding members states, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were thwarted by the then French leader, Charles de Gaulle, as the motives of Britain’s membership were perceived as controlling and potentially corrupt (Sanders and Houghton, 2017).

Even after Britain became a member state, its approval has remained low and has never extended past 60% (Frich et al., 2016). Shortly after initiation into the EU, the British government held a referendum to decide if it should remain a member. The results were in favour of the union, however, it is argued that the vote to remain was based on the idea that membership would include no marked political agenda and was to ensure Britain's membership in the Common Market (Skidelsky, 2018). The late relationship it forged with the EU meant that as the initial need for involvement had shifted from the need for a strong partnership in Europe to a predominantly economic bargaining tool. As such, Britain arguably was able to succeed in achieving its wishes when joining the EU. Maintaining those economic links allowed Britain to take a differential stance on decision-making and opt of crucial aspects of European integration - such as becoming a member of the Economic Monetary Union (EMU) or Eurozone and the Schengen Area.

Although it was hard for Britain to adjust to its new membership status with the delays it had, this did not prevent it from becoming one of the most productive members. The active use of the Single Market and financial contributions that are given to the EU annually - and throughout its time as a member state - are of a country that is heavily involved. Dunin-Wasowicz (2016) argues that even despite the rebate given back from the EU, the UK is still one of the most significant net contributors. This financial rebate was implemented in 1985 to ensure the amount the UK contributed was in line with the country's Gross National Income (GNI). (House of Commons, 2019). This argument of heavy involvement has impacted recent national politics and was one of the main arguments for a call for Brexit by the leave campaign, however, the amounts disclosed did not include the significant rebate or financing given back to the UK. In 2018, "the UK contributed approximately 8.93 billion to the EU budget and received 8.52 billion back." (Clark, 2019). The aftermath of the EU referendum result is likely to see the pressure of the UK's investment fall to Germany and the other top 5 contributors are fighting to maintain their rebate to prevent a tremendous economic strain (Khan and Chazan, 2019).

The evidence shows that throughout the historical timeline of Britain's relationship with the EU that it has been a detached member, however, if this is still the case, the economic involvement and investment in the EU does not account for this. Another argument for this detachment is in the cultural evidence, wherein we can see evidence of a rise in the prevalence of Euroscepticism and a wish to maintain sovereignty as proof of Britains detachment from the EU.

Britain has a legacy of Euroscepticism that has prevented it from becoming a fully cooperative member of the EU. Although the EU rejected Britains multiple applications to become a member state from 1963 until 1973, Britain also initially rejected becoming part of the newly formed EEC for fear of losing its preference for an imperialist focus on commonwealth (Sanders and Houghton, 2017). In 2017, former Prime Minister David Cameron reflected this idea in his Kyiv (formerly Kiev) speech, noting that Britain has always been a "rather reluctant and uncertain member of the EU." (Phipps, 2017). Camerons speech echoed the results of the EU referendum prior to the speech. The 2016 referendum resulting in the UK voting to leave the EU signified the establishment of proof of Euroscepticism in the UK. Since its induction into the EU, the argument that the EU as a supranational power that exercised excessive rights over individuals and as a threat to sovereignty and national identity has been a staple of British/ UK politics. The ideas about the efficacy and usefulness of the EU has been a cause for conflict within and between UK political parties since 1973. The UK Conservative party was previously pro-EU as it previously placed importance on the ability to deliver and strengthen Free Market trade between European states.

In contrast, the Labour party was previously Eurosceptic and placed its judgement on the EU's increased power and loss of national sovereignty. This ordering changed in 1995 after Labour under Blair took a Pro European/ EU approach to prevent any further divisions within the party. This disparity, as seen between the Labour and Conservatives, was not only seen between parties but also within. The result of the October 2011 European Union referendum bill - aimed at gaining parliamentary consent to hold the EU referendum - caused turmoil within the Conservative party and caused 81 members to defy a 3 line whip (Geddes, 2016). More recently, 21 Conservative party members had the whip removed for voting for a bill preventing the option of a no-deal Brexit bill if there was no agreement was made by the PM's October 31st deadline (Hossein-Pour, 2019). This turmoil within and between parties can be seen as evidence of its semi-detached nature as it is evident there is no distinct mandate for participation in the EU if the government are unable to do so. This Euroscepticism in the UK arguably stems from a fear of losing national sovereignty as the UK's devolved institutions begin to lose power in place of EU jurisdiction. Although British citizens can vote-in members for the European Parliament, regulation and decisions made at the EU level are not subject to our individual government's parliamentary approval and therefore distance the electorate from decisions made - which arguably weaken democracy. However, the UK has been able to negotiate conditions that make it exempt from specific EU legislation by negotiating opt-out agreements. As an example of this is the 2007 Lisbon Treaty or the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union that enabled the UK to opt-out of certain conditions pertaining to Justice and Home affairs. This choice was exercised more recently in response to the 2015 refugee crisis, wherein the UK was able to decline to partake in certain aspects of the Common European Asylum System that other member states had to adhere to concerning the re-location of migrants (House of Commons - Home Affairs Committee, 2016). As a result, this is further proof of the notion of Britain as a semi-detached member of the EU.

Despite the fact, Britain's Euroscepticism has been seen to be evident in the decisions made within, and regarding the EU, it has been shown that Britain is still able to maintain control over its interactions with the European Union with its practical evidence. The examination of this practical evidence is one of the primary ways to determine how semi-detached Britain is with the EU.

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One of the key ways in which Britain has been seen as a semi-detached member of the EU is because engagement is optional. While the EU Parliament and Council have the ability to implement laws - with the approval of the majority of the member states, the UK has been able to choose to opt-out of engagement in many of its key focal areas. Along with its self-exclusion from elements of the Lisbon treaty, Britain has also opted out of the Schengen Agreement and 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Westlake (2019) notes that these arrangements that leave Britain on the periphery are not unique, as many others also have opt-in conditions with both agreements. The Schengen Agreement allows citizens of member states to move freely between particular EU countries visa-free and without restriction as this one of the EU's founding principles of free movement of peoples and trade. The United Kingdom was able to opt-out - along with Ireland when it became enforceable with its integration into the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty, however, Westlake (2019) notes that several other countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania also do not belong to the Schengen States. This supports the idea that Britain's special concessions are not a novel in the workings of the EU and if many other countries have similar agreements, the extent of British semi-detachment must not be larger than any other. However, Westlake (2019) did not note that the conditions preventing Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania were different as all are either in the process of meeting the criteria for application or in the process of evaluation to become a Schengen member state.

The UK was similarly able to opt-out of becoming a Eurozone member state by also opting out of provisions in the 1992 Maastrict Treaty that would have made it enforceable. Skidelsky (2018) notes this was one of the first ways in which Britain's status as a semi-detached member was established - as it predates all other agreements, including Amsterdam and Lisbon treaty. However, the UK was not alone in its endeavour to remain independent, and like the concessions given to the UK with the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, Denmark was also provided with opt-out and following its referendum, chose to remain out of the Eurozone. In this way, if Britain can be said to be a semi-detached member of the EU, then surely Denmark could also be. Data seen in the infographic by the Parliamentary Research Service (2016) shows that along with not being a member of the Eurozone, Denmark has also opted out of the EU defence policy and as such is not privy to foreign policy discussions, which is arguably one of the most significant features of the European Union requiring the most cohesion.

In fact, several other countries have similar part-agreements, including countries not within the EU at all. Switzerland rejected becoming part of EEA (EU) in 1992 in favour of bilateral agreements established in 1999. Their bi-lateral agreements include the same framework as offered by the EU such as free trade and movement of people, and as such, it is both a member of the Schengen Area and the EFTA (Ec.europa.eu, 2019). Switzerland could also be argued to be a semi-detached member of the EU without ever being within the EU as its bi-lateral agreements are similar to the part agreements shared by many of the EU member states - including the UK. As Article 50 has been enabled, it is now likely the UK will be heading for bi-lateral agreements like Switzerland to fully complete the detachment process although, in theory, this is what we already have. Westlake (2019) argued that "UK will instead be swapping one set of complex relations with the EU and its member states for another". What can be said of all these part agreements from the member states like Denmark and Ireland are that out of all the States within the EU, the UK has the most opt-outs of all countries - having opt-out clauses in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, the Schengen agreement, the EMU (or the charter for fundamental human rights.) (EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service, 2016).

The reason for Britain's semi-detached status originates from the need to maintain sovereignty but is also based on its history and the background of Euroscepticism in the UK. The evidence shows that we can conclusively say that Britain does have a semi-detached membership from the EU. However, the evidence also suggests that its detachment is not much more than any other country within the EU or with close ties to the EU. Countries like Denmark and Ireland have similar part agreements, however, they are rarely spoken about in terms of their 'awkward partnership'. Furthermore, countries that are not in the EU like Norway and Switzerland also have similar bi-lateral agreements and part-agreements with the EU. As such, if the criteria to being a fully-fledged member are only in terms of the participation and agreement with treaties, Norway and Switzerland would more or less be members too.

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