He got what he wanted.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The U.K. Wasn't a Real EU Member Anyway

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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One could argue -- and some, like UKIP leader Nigel Farage, already do -- that the concessions British Prime Minister David Cameron obtained late Friday from other European Union leaders in order to stay in the bloc are meaningless. Or one could rejoice in a victory as Cameron does. That won't change a fundamental fact: The U.K. is not really part of the EU anyway.

The negotiations that resulted in Friday's deal were an elaborate public-relations charade played out for Cameron's domestic audience and for the international media with its "EU is falling apart" narrative.

Cameron asked for the right to curtail benefits for migrant workers from other EU countries for 13 years, but he got seven years instead. Cameron asked for an effective veto over EU legislation but instead got an assurance that any such legislation will take into account the interests of countries that aren't part of Europe's monetary and banking unions. Cameron wanted an opt-out of the EU treaties' goal of an "ever closer union" and got a declaration explaining that this only applied to those countries that wanted it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the deal demanded "a lot of willingness for compromise." Cameron promised to campaign "with all my heart and soul to persuade the British people to remain in the reformed European Union that we have secured today." Everybody went home, and now the U.K. will vote on June 23 on whether to stay in the EU. I have little doubt that it will go with Cameron: The rest of the referendum drama will be as decorative as the talks on Friday's deal were.

In reality, the U.K. was, and remains, about as much of an EU member as Switzerland -- which is not formally part of the union -- and, arguably, even less. The U.K. doesn't subscribe to the EU's common-borders policy or borderless free movement, described by the Schengen agreement. Meanwhile, Switzerland has borderless travel with EU countries.

The U.K. is also not part of the euro. "For the first time, the EU has explicitly acknowledged it has more than one currency," Cameron said. That's not true. The U.K. has had a permanent opt-out of the common currency since 1992, and that is as official as it gets: It's spelled out in a special protocol of the Maastricht Treaty.

Since 2007, the U.K. has had an opt-out of Europe's Charter of Fundamental Rights, allowing U.K. courts to define basic human rights without reference to European law. Well, Switzerland also defines these rights at its own discretion.

Switzerland has a tougher regime for migrant workers from the EU than the U.K. does. It allows most of them to accept employment offers, but it kicks out everyone who applies for benefits. The U.K. would like to do the same, and Friday's agreement is a small step along this path. I guess the somewhat more lenient work-immigration rules the U.K. still has compared with Switzerland can be seen as a trade-off for wanting no part of Schengen.

It suits everyone fine that the U.K. is an EU member in name only. Both sides need a free-trade regime. Germany and France are the second- and third-biggest trade partners of the U.K., together accounting for greater trade volumes than the No. 1 partner, the U.S. For Germany, the U.K. is the No. 3 trading partner; for France, it's No. 4. Undermining that would do no one any good. At the same time, the EU would look woefully incomplete without Europe's third-most-populous country (if one only counts states located entirely on the European continent). It's OK to do without Norway, but the U.K. would be too big to keep outside the European orbit.

Anything more than this has always been optional. Contrary to a belief that is for some reason widespread in the U.K., Brussels doesn't want to force anyone into deeper integration. Idealistic projects such as the EU are for enthusiastic volunteers. Everyone else has always been able to opt out of various parts of the union, and those not wanting to integrate at the same speed have never been punished.

Friday's agreement says that the EU treaties

allow for the non-participation of one or more Member States in actions intended to further the objectives of the Union, notably through the establishment of enhanced cooperations. Therefore, such processes make possible different paths of integration for different Member States, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, whilst respecting the rights of those which do not want to take such a course.

Cameron touts this as a victory. "Today we have permanently carved Britain out of it, so that we can never be forced into political integration with the rest of Europe," he said of the "ever closer union" goal. That, however, was always the case, as the agreement points out. Europe would never do anything to the U.K. for resisting a political union, so what stopped it from opting out, as it did on other matters?

Recent events -- the euro-zone banking crisis, the Greek meltdown, the enormous influx of refugees from the Middle East -- have bared too many tensions and differences between those EU members that have subscribed to tighter unity for Europe to care much about holdouts. These differences can't be overcome as easily as the essentially meaningless concessions were made. EU leaders have some real work to do.

The June 23 referendum should affirm the U.K.'s position as a nominal EU member. Its likely positive outcome will be no more meaningful than a royal warrant of appointment on a Barbour jacket or a tin of Twinings tea. 

Cameron, however, takes too much upon himself when he declares that "Britain will never be part of a European superstate." The EU is a long-term project, and even if the ruling party and much of the population of a country doesn't see its benefits now, that doesn't have to be the case for eternity. After all, it was an Englishman, Charles Dickens, who first used the expression "Never say never."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net