David Hayes: Britain and Europe: Living Together, Apart

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David Hayes was Deputy Editor of openDemocracy from 2003–12. He writes each month for Inside Story.

“Ni avec toi, ni sans toi.” If Britain’s long and often tortuous relationship with the European Union could be summed up in a single phrase, the epigraph of Francois Truffaut’s film La Femme d’à Côté is a good candidate. Across seven decades, the two sides have been enveloped in fluctuating tides – of politics and history, of interest and emotion, of loyalty and ideology, of reason and longing – without ever settling into a definitive resolution. “Neither with you, nor without you,” indeed.

If truth be told, though, they shared little of the passion of Truffaut’s doomed couple. Britain’s early encouragement of continental cooperation in the late 1940s; its protracted negotiations over the infant European Economic Community in the 1950s; its twice-vetoed applications to join in the 1960s, and the successful bid in the 1970s; wrangles over budgets, labour rights and exchange rates in the 1980–90s and tensions over the new European Union’s constitutional treaty in the 2000s; and the eurozone crisis in the 2010s – through all this, the story has been one in which rows have often given way to hard-won agreement, yet also in which divorce was no more feasible than real intimacy.

Now, in 2013, comes a new chapter that offers the possibility of a radical break. In a long-delayed and much-trailed speech on 23 January, prime minister David Cameron announced that four years hence he intends to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. Departure is not his preferred option. The speech delineates a series of principles for a reformed European Union (competitiveness, flexibility, devolution of power, democratic accountability, and fairness); if they can be codified to Britain’s advantage in negotiations with other member-states, they would allow Cameron to recommend that the British vote to stay in the union....

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