Calling on the U.K. to lead and not leave, European Union President Herman Van Rompuy said Britain is damaging its own economic interests by weighing an unprecedented departure from the bloc.
Even a revamp of Britain’s membership terms would be hard to negotiate, Van Rompuy warned, summing up the doubts that have emerged across Europe about U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s planned referendum on staying or going.
“How do you convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle?” Van Rompuy said at a Policy Network conference in London today. “How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat?”
Cameron announced the political gamble last month, trying to stave off growing anti-EU voices within his Conservative Party by promising to claw powers back from EU institutions and, by the end of 2017, put continued membership to a U.K. referendum.
No country has ever left the EU, something that was legally impossible until a 2009 overhaul of the bloc’s founding treaties. Cameron proposed the in-or-out referendum as long as his party returns to power after the 2015 election.
Van Rompuy pleaded for an alternative course, urging Britain to take the lead in making the 27-nation common market more competitive, promoting high-tech industries and deregulating the service sector. Britain will also benefit from a trans-Atlantic free-trade accord now being pursued by the EU and U.S., Van Rompuy said.
“Britain is expected to lead the charge, in pumping up Europe’s first heart, the single market,” Van Rompuy said. “Britain can play an absolutely central part in making Europe’s economy fit for the future. The role is yours to take.”
Van Rompuy listed legal and practical obstacles to customizing the U.K.’s membership terms, starting with the pushback likely to come from the other current members and Croatia, which is set to join in July.
“Stepping out of existing areas of cooperation is not just a matter between London and Brussels: it would impact the relationship between your country and 26, soon 27 others,” he said. “They will first listen, once there are precise requests, and then they will talk.”
Across Europe, Van Rompuy said, there is little appetite for a rewrite of European treaties, a step that would be necessary for a large-scale transfer of powers back from the EU to London.
Van Rompuy called a possible exit “legally and politically a most complicated and unpractical affair. Just think of a divorce after 40 years of marriage.”