Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The British were Euro sceptics?

Ralitsa Kovacheva, October 31, 2011

Possibly. But surely they are euro pragmatics. And this is more than evident in recent days after it has already been clear that the eurozone will increasingly consolidate. But it should not be encapsulated and isolated from the other 10 EU countries, according to the British. Together with other countries outside the euro area, like Poland and Sweden, the UK led a strong campaign non-euro countries to have a say in the decisions of the euro area, when these concern all 27 EU Member States.

"It is only by having a loud voice in a united Europe that we can promote the open economy that will deliver growth. Being shoved to the margins, or retreating there voluntarily, would be economic suicide: a surefire way to hurt British businesses and lose jobs. It would also leave us alone in the world at a time of great uncertainty."

These words belong to the British deputy prime minister and leader of the smaller partner in the ruling coalition, the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, from an article published by The Guardian. Moreover, the UK is not simply aware of this fact, but it is actively resisting to such a possibility:

"… The UK is forging alliances on both sides of the eurozone border. The government has worked hard to build up relationships across the EU. I've heard the case made that, should the eurozone become a club within a club, our natural place is as leader of the 'outs' (the 10 states that have not joined the euro). But to limit our ambition like this would be an extraordinary own goal. Why would we seek to head up a smaller club with a fast diminishing membership? Many of our fellow 'outs' eventually want to become "ins"."

"More important, we spent years fighting to bring down the walls that divided Europe – it would be damaging to let new ones spring up now. […] Fracturing the EU would undermine those achievements. It should be avoided at all costs."

A day after the eurozone leaders came up with comprehensive solutions to address the debt crisis and to strengthen the euro area governance, British Finance Minister George Osborne told Parliament:

"It’s in Britain interest that the euro operates more effectively – provided the interests of all 27 Member States are properly protected in key areas of European policy like the single market, competition and financial services. […] We are insistent that our voice will continue to be heard and our national interests protected – and we have found allies among the other 10 members of the EU not in the euro."

"Now is the time to give us a say over Europe," The Telegraph stated in its editorial:

"The 17 members of the euro will, if all goes according to plan, soon form a unified political bloc. They will be able to outvote Britain (and the other countries that are not part of the euro) on many of the critical issues that the Lisbon Treaty stipulated should be decided by majority voting. Economic regulations are a crucial example: the euro bloc will be able to impose rules that could fatally damage the competitive advantage of the City of London, and indeed Britain’s economy as a whole.

Finding a way to avoid that immediately raises very basic questions: how will an EU divided between the fiscally integrated eurozone countries and the others function in practise? Will it even be possible to sustain the 27-member EU, with all of its present powers? Would it make more sense for the non-euro countries to revert to being part of a free trade area, in effect giving up on being part of a united Europe, and on all the harmonisation and integration which that implies?"

The newspaper notes that the British government has begun to consider options on how to proceed since it is already clear that the eurozone is headed to a fiscal union. But this is not enough: "Yet this issue is far too important to be restricted to confidential discussions between officials and ministers. What is required is a full-scale political debate," the newspaper wrote.

Obviously, such a debate is already taking place in the UK, as well as in Poland. Moreover the topic is enjoying an enviable media interest. What is the Polish EU Presidency doing to prevent the separation of a Europe at two-speeds - this was the most asked question by Polish journalists in Brussels during the summits on 23 and 26 October. And after the European Council meeting on 26 October, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk hastened to announce that an agreement had been reached the countries willing to join the euro area and being close to membership to participate in the eurozone decisions.

Against this background, the Bulgarian silence is deafening. Besides the edifying statements of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister that the eurozone countries can only learn from Bulgaria, we have not heard a clear Bulgarian position on the process of further integration of the euro area. And there is a reason for an active position: according to the data, published by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Bulgaria has the third highest exposure to the euro area in Central and Eastern Europe region, after Hungary and Slovakia. 18% of Bulgarian exports, 36% of its external debt and 58% of foreign direct investment are related to the euro area. According to the EBRD, in 2012 the debt crisis will continue to create risks for the region's economies in terms of trade, investment and the financial sector.

And in purely political terms, here is completely valid the same argument, used by Bulgaria when it joined the Euro Plus Pact – to have a say when decisions are taken. Although this government's decision has been heavily criticised, mainly because of the opaque and hasty manner in which it was taken, it showed a clear and focused European policy. Unfortunately, it is apparently devoid of the required consistency.

If Bulgaria is really serious about its European membership, the government must stop presenting the European Union only as a source of money for highways and farmers, and using 'Brussels' only to justify some unpopular decisions. The media, in turn, like those in Poland and the UK, must insist to have a say in the debates on the EU's future and to include the citizens. Otherwise, instead of showing euro activism and euro pragmatism, Bulgaria will still be plunged in its inadequate euro don't-careism.