When Is Retreat Not Defeat? In U.K. Debate on Europe

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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It's as though it took the death of Margaret Thatcher to release the old warhorses of the Conservative Party to go public and say the U.K. should leave the European Union.

Today it was Michael Portillo'sturn. Portillo is a former Cabinet minister. He was, at one point, the Thatcherite great young hope to lead the Tory party, until he lost his seat in parliament. He is still listened to.

Writing in the Times, he says -- rightly -- that Prime Minster David Cameron's plan to renegotiate the U.K.'s membership with the EU and then get Britons to recommit to membership in a referendum, is a canard. The referendum most likely won't happen, as the Tories will struggle to win a majority in the next elections. And if it does, then Cameron probably won't be able to get the rest of the EU to unpick the treaties for him and create meaningful change.

Portillo says this "whingeing" approach to the U.K.'s future in the EU shows "defeatism," in the sense that Cameron lacks confidence in the U.K.'s ability to go it alone and leave. He goes on: "You cannot imagine Margaret Thatcher approaching the issue in such an insincere and political way."

Portillo says that if there is a referendum as planned in 2017, the U.K. would be voting not on whether to leave or stay, but on whether to sign up to a full political union, a United States of Europe.

His piece was triggered by a carefully considered article, also in the Times, by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, a genuine big beast in the Conservative Party pantheon. Lawson gave much the same bottom line as Portillo -- that the U.K. should leave -- except he believes the referendum will happen; that the EU, once a great project, has simply outlived its usefulness; and that the net benefits for the U.K. are turning negative as the bloc piles punitive regulations onto the finance sector, which is the U.K.'s golden goose.

Wanting to stay in the EU isn't defeatist, though. It's a reasonable choice to make and is probably the more pragmatic one. The U.K. doesn't get to leave Europe because it is moored to it for the next several million years, at least. Over the centuries, the U.K. received regular reminders of its European ties and had to form different alliances, and fight wars, to secure its interests and safety. The U.K., of course, won't have to fight Germany or France with weapons again, as Lawson says, but it will have to go on wrestling with them over trade, immigration and everything short of war.

Will the U.K. be better placed to protect its financial industry, its attractiveness for foreign direct investment, and export markets (by far the biggest of which is and will remain the EU) by being in or out? Will it be able to keep Scotland and leave the EU?

Cameron is being defeatist in one sense. He made his referendum pledge out of fear of the rising U.K. Independence Party, which just won a quarter of the vote in local elections by poaching conservative voters. Cameron appears to believe he can't keep his party together and beat UKIP without adopting some of their policies on Europe and immigration (even though "Europe" doesn't rank in the top 10 concerns of most voters). He also seems to believe that he cannot build enough support inside the EU to shape laws the way the U.K. wants them, except by threatening to leave.

Cameron may well lose on all fronts as a result. He may have cornered himself into a position where he has to hold a referendum that leads to the U.K.'s exit from the EU, something he doesn't want. He may also lose those voters he's trying to keep and more to UKIP, because he has made their policies mainstream.

Things are changing in the EU, or course. If the euro remains intact, that will involve a great leap forward in the political integration of euro-area members. The EU will inevitably become a two-speed machine. All this will have to be negotiated among the 27 (soon to be 28) members. Alternatively, the euro will disintegrate and there will be no political union.

If the U.K. leaves, there will be no glorious buccaneering future alone. It will survive, of course. It'll probably do fine -- as London's euroskeptic Mayor Boris Johnson said this week, this isn't an existential choice. But the U.K. will still be in Europe, and it will continue to overregulate itself without any help from the EU.

London will still want the euro area's banking business, and British manufacturers will still have to meet EU standards and regulations for goods exported to the EU. It's just that the U.K. will no longer have any say on what those rules are.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net