December 09, 2011

The UK must choose

It's clear that a 30-year period of reckoning for Great Britain vis-a-vis the EU has finally come due. Britain must choose whether to be part of a more financially integrated EU, even if it stays out of the Eurozone, or decide what it wants to do outside of that.

And, of course, this is all complicated by politics within the UK.

Assuming that financial services is that much a part of the British economy, I think Tories have to ask whether it will shrink more as part of the new EU or outside of it.

Frankly, a tighter monetary EU will, eventually, boost the Continent's role in finances, especially if any directives from Brussels are ultimately influenced by glances at Berlin. So, if Prime Minister David Cameron wants to walk around in EU purgatory, or even, as Tory backbenchers clearly want, leave the Union entirely, I think he's an idiot.

Sign on. Britain's financial sector will take some sort of hit, true. But, not immediately, and not in a way that Cameron, if he has any brains (questionable) can't actually fulfill his talk about leading a new type of Conservative Party.

The option of playing at the EU edges? Assuming Merkel and Sarkozy can pull something off, that's not a long-term option.

Cameron's stiff upper lip talk otherwise, larger EU-27 institutions will lose relative power if the narrower eurozone gets new financial strength, new financial regulations strength and, above all, is less unwieldy and more open to easier reform of governance. Eventually, the other "outsiders," even those already given tentative eurozone approval, will have to sign off on the bottom line, too. So, unless Britain can convince a minority of "outsider 10" to follow it, a two-tiered EU just doesn't sound that plausible.

So, ditching the EU entirely? Unhelpful. Despite new openness on banking, Switzerland's tight world would make it equal to an independent UK as an EU counterweight. The rest of the Commonwealth? Canada's tied to the US. Australia is largely independent. Other countries matter less.

Labour would, albeit reluctantly, surely take the plunge, also liking more of Brussels' regulatory powers and ideas.

Per Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, choose wisely, Mr. Cameron. You may not get a second chance.

And, per U.S. conservatives, don't root for Cameron to choose to opt out. The "special relationship" will only be diminished if Britain itself is.

At least not at the head of a government.

That said, if this leads to a referendum, Labour won't be able to do any "straddling" itself.

And, whoever leads the country, if Britain winds up in financial outer darkness, does it wind up as more a "lapdog of the US"? Thoughts for all British political leaders.

It's not the choice of the EU vs. a more independent UK. That ultimate 30-year reckoning on alignment may be coming due.

Roger Cohen agrees about that and about Cameron's short-sighted stupidity.


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