Will UK leave the EU, and does it matter?

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, May 29, 2016
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On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom will hold a popular referendum to decide whether or not it will remain a member of the European Union.

The European Union – or, as it was once known, the European Economic Community – has become an important element of global politics over the last fifty years, and the world has become so used to it that the possible withdrawal of a major partner like the U.K. sounds rather shocking. But it should be remembered that the original founders of the Community, particularly the French President Charles de Gaulle, didn't originally imagine Britain being a party to the agreement; it was only in 1973 that the U.K. was allowed to join, a decision ratified by the British people in a referendum in 1975. By then most of the rules of the organization had been set and agreed upon by the French and German governments.

Britain has always been a somewhat detached partner in this burgeoning organization. There are many reasons for this; the existence of a network based on former colonies and the English language, which formed a potentially alternative trading bloc, and the existence of an entirely different concept of law and state, based on common law rather than on a legal system imposed from above following the tradition of the Napoleonic Code.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Labour Party was split from top to bottom over EU membership; later, towards the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure of office, she herself began to have grave doubts over the direction of the whole project, and since then the Conservative Party has remained deeply divided. Prime Minister David Cameron has been consistently in favor of remaining in the EU, but he found it necessary to include in last year's election manifesto a commitment to hold a national referendum on continued membership.

Cameron promised to hold negotiations to reform the EU before placing the choice before the British people; he has indeed worked hard on these negotiations, but it is a matter of dispute in the U.K. whether or not reform has actually been achieved. Cameron has allowed all members of the government to announce their own personal views on the issue, and several senior ministers have come out against the EU and their own party leader. It looks as though there will be a split in the government, and Cameron has already promised that he will not remain as leader to fight the next election in 2020. Thus the implications of the referendum for U.K. politics are most unclear and most interesting.

But what would the implications for the rest of the world be if Britain leaves the EU? There is a lot of scaremongering in circles of international diplomacy, which is partly motivated by self-interest, as large numbers of diplomats (I used to be one) have jobs which are heavily involved in multilateral organizations with their endless meetings and the millions of man-hours wasted in them every year. And the combined economic power of the EU member states produces some impressive statistics. The EU as a whole remains China's biggest trading partner, and China is the EU's second biggest partner after the United States. There are arguments that a British withdrawal from the EU will somehow cut the U.K. out of these lucrative trading relationships. But there is no real reason to believe this. Businesses do not trade with international organizations; they trade with other businesses, and insofar as intergovernmental agreements are needed to safeguard fair trading terms between one country and another, these can be reached bilaterally without the need for a multilateral umbrella.

President Obama, who strongly believes that Britain should stay in the EU, has warned the U.K. that the exit could leave the British "at the back of the queue" when it comes to negotiating a separate trade deal with the U.S. There are also concerns in China that a U.K. exit from the EU will cause problems by requiring a separate Sino-British trade deal. I can understand that neither China nor the U.S. want any more complications in the endless negotiations for a comprehensive trade deal with the EU. China's trade relations with the EU are still governed by the 1985 EU-China Trade and Cooperation Agreement; for nearly ten years negotiations have been in progress to upgrade this to a new European Union Association Agreement, but this has not been achieved yet. As for U.S.-EU negotiations, these are currently tied up in the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) project, which is hugely unpopular in Europe, especially in Britain. I do not think that any of Britain's or Europe's major trading partners have much to fear regarding the outcome of the referendum on June 23rd.

Tim Collard is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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