Viewpoints: How experts see UK role in EU


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How does the UK fit into the EU's plans for closer economic and political integration?

Many British MPs want Prime Minister David Cameron to call an "in or out" referendum and opinion polls suggest many British voters are disillusioned with the EU.

BBC News asked some prominent European politicians and analysts for their views on the UK's role in the EU and whether it would make sense for the UK to leave.

Martin Schulz, president of European Parliament and German MEP

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Martin Schulz

In a globalised world, the UK would risk so much going it alone”

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The UK should remain part of the EU, but at the same time, the UK should not preach to other EU member states from the sidelines without being fully engaged in the process.

UK membership is in the British and European interest. The single market benefits the British economy hugely and the EU remains by far the biggest destination for UK trade, accounting for almost 50% of total exports.

Nevertheless, the UK has secured opt-outs or opt-ins in areas including the euro, Schengen and justice/home affairs. This shows that the UK is not comfortable with everything the EU does and in many areas remains a reluctant partner.

As for a possible referendum on EU membership - that would be up to the British government to decide. It is nevertheless clear that the UK has to make up its mind as to whether European integration is a project it wants to be fully engaged in, and is in the British interest, or whether it should observe from the sidelines. The UK's support for deeper integration of the eurozone is welcome, but some could see it as preaching from outside.

Martin Schulz

  • President of European Parliament since January 2012
  • Leader of centre-left Socialists and Democrats bloc of MEPs

On the EU budget, I totally disagree with the UK point of view. Like the UK, the rest of the EU wants to boost economic growth and develop a low-carbon economy. The EU budget in fact finances research and development, environmental protection, development aid and the digital economy, which are all priorities for the UK government. The EU budget is in fact an investment tool for the whole EU.

In a globalised world, the UK would risk so much going it alone. Its influence would decline and it would be separated from its closest geographic and political allies in continental Europe. We need to see a Britain engaged with its European partners.

Herve Mariton, French conservative MP

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Herve Mariton

The logic of the eurozone is federalism, we had better admit it now”

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Playing with the idea of a referendum is dangerous - many people think they can speak about it, but what might happen is that the UK gets out without people realising what is happening, without all the consequences being totally analysed.

If more topics are decided on a eurozone basis, in time, the UK will have to acknowledge that it left without people taking a clear decision.

On repatriation of powers from Brussels my position is similar to the UK Government's in some respects - I do not share the same topics [with the UK], but yes some topics can be repatriated to national level. I believe in subsidiarity - things should be dealt with at the best level possible.

As far as possible, things should be done at national or local level. Take environmental issues - water policy, for example, has a big impact on the budget and here many competences should be sent back to national level. When the Rhine floods it is logical to have European intervention. But EU directives do not only deal with transnational matters - there is also flooding which has no international dimension, and then one may wonder what the EU has to do with it.

Herve Mariton

  • Politician in conservative UMP, represents mountainous southern Drome region
  • Minister for overseas territories in 2007

Or take the return of the wolf to the French Alps - the EU says you cannot kill more than a certain number. What on Earth has Europe to do with how French farmers have to deal with wolves in the French mountains? That is not a European issue.

I think the logic of the eurozone is federalism, we had better admit it now. That will make us organise the checks and balances necessary in any democracy. The current situation is very dangerous. I believe the UK is getting more isolated in Europe. I do not know many countries that want the EU to be just a trade zone.

Emma Bonino, vice-president of Italian Senate

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Emma Bonino

By replacing membership with a free trade agreement would Britain be better off? Do not count on it”

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The UK is not the only EU country to strive for referendums on Europe or for powers to be repatriated from Brussels. It is certainly the most vocal and, by far, the most obstinate - to the point at times of being in complete denial of its national interests. This denial may well materialise if the UK were to push the looming [EU] budget confrontation to breaking point. Do not expect other leaders to come to the rescue, in wrecking or paralysing the EU.

Some facts and figures:

  • Roughly half of UK exports go to the EU
  • Every UK household "earns" between £1,500 and £3,500 per annum thanks to the Single Market (SM)
  • 33,000 people work for the European Commission, compared to 82,000 who work for UK Revenue and Customs
  • Only 6.8% of UK primary legislation and 14.1% of secondary legislation have anything to do with implementing EU obligations - not EU diktats - agreed to, approved of and signed off by UK officials

A few arguments:

Emma Bonino

  • Vice-president of Italy's Senate (upper house)
  • A leading member of liberal Italian Radicals
  • 2006-2008 - Italian minister of European affairs and trade
  • 1995-1999 - EU commissioner for health and consumer protection
  • By replacing membership with a free trade agreement would Britain be better off? Don't count on it. Any agreement would have a price: ask Norway or Switzerland about their contributions to EU cohesion funds for the privilege of accessing the SM
  • When speaking to China or the US, would the UK's voice be better heard in isolation? Speaking on behalf of London while shaping decisions in Brussels definitely carries more weight
  • Is UK suspicion of federalism well founded? Frankly it is hard to imagine a European superstate with a budget of just over 1% of EU countries' GDP

Britain has a lot of leverage in Europe. It is up to its leaders to decide how best to use it. For instance, is the UK not keen on some EU foreign policy priorities and on deepening the SM? Well, a British commissioner runs the EU diplomatic service and Britain certainly is not alone in wanting to preserve the SM.

Ulf Sverdrup, head of Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

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Ulf Sverdrup

The Norwegian model, shared with Iceland and Liechtenstein, is complex and costly”

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A UK exit from the EU is perhaps unlikely, but even discussion of the alternatives is unfortunate, both for Europe and the UK.

For the EU, a constructive and influential UK has always been a strong asset. At its best, the UK has been able to set a course for Europe and has brought in valuable perspectives, methods and approaches.

The European debate in the UK is also potentially destructive for the UK. Rather than discussing how to ensure the UK's interests in Europe, the debate, it seems, is exaggerating the significance of formal ties to the EU.

The real lesson to be learned from, for instance, Norway as a non-member is perhaps that for a modern European country with an open economy there is no escaping the gravity of European integration.

Ulf Sverdrup

  • Director of Norwegian Institute of International Affairs think tank
  • 2000-2011 - Senior researcher at Arena Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo

The alternatives to formal membership for the UK are also difficult to imagine. The fundamental logic of the Norwegian model - not wanting to lose the benefits of dealing with Europe, but also knowing that a majority of the electorate is against formal EU membership - might at first sight seem enticing for many in Britain.

But the Norwegian model, shared with Iceland and Liechtenstein, is complex and costly, as well as problematic in terms of democracy and national interest. From a Norwegian standpoint the model is bearable, even if it comes at a high price in terms of democracy. But Norway is a small and rather rich country with limited ambitions to influence European policy. The Norwegian solution to Europe is not one that I would recommend for others.

Derk-Jan Eppink, conservative Belgian MEP

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Derk Jan Eppink

If the EU is united on something the European bureaucracy will punish the UK because it left and gave up”

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From the perspective of a Dutchman elected in Belgium it is very important to have the UK in the EU, because economic liberalism would be dead on the continent without the UK in it. If the UK were not there it would be dominated by German corporatism and French statism. There would be more protectionism.

I worry about developments in the eurozone, I am not sure if it is going in the right direction. Is it integration or actually schemes to move more money from north to south? I think the eurozone is still in the danger zone.

The UK is using this crisis as momentum to talk about a new relationship with the EU, to get some powers repatriated - I agree with that, because Brussels is trying do too many things at the same time. We should have a broad debate about the powers that Brussels has, what it should do.

The EU should focus on the single market, international trade, the environment and foreign policy. I am worried about a fiscal union - it will create a transfer economy in the eurozone, with one part permanently subsidising the other part, and there is not public support for that.

It is already difficult in the UK if you subsidise Scotland or Wales, but if there is no shared nationhood this support is very thin. You see that in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands - those who have to pay. They are asking serious questions about what is going to happen.

Derk-Jan Eppink

  • Belgian MEP in List Dedecker - member of conservative bloc since 2009
  • 1999-2007 - served as aide to EU commissioners Frits Bolkestein and Siim Kallas
  • Born in Netherlands, worked as reporter on Dutch and Belgian newspapers

The UK is asking the difficult questions - when I ask the same questions in the European Parliament I get the same reaction. They are legitimate, correct questions. Brussels just wants to keep along the same road, and "more Europe". I do not think Britain should be a scapegoat.

Leaving the EU would not be good for the EU or the UK. The EU is by far the biggest trading partner. As for renegotiating a free trade deal with the EU - do not bet on that. If the EU is united on something, the European bureaucracy will punish the UK because it left and gave up - so it will not give a favourable trade deal to the UK.

But a more efficient relationship within the EU? It is good to start negotiating on that, then have a referendum on that settlement. Otherwise it will be very emotional, they all start screaming and there is no focus on the facts.

Hugo Brady, Irish research fellow at Centre for European Reform

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Hugo Brady

We agree with the British on a lot, for example protection of the common law system”

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The UK has a natural rebalancing role between the big countries - it avoids the rush to group-think, it is not afraid to blurt out inconvenient truths at the table, and sometimes its awkwardness is constructive. The Republic of Ireland could not do that.

Ireland is probably top of a number of countries who broadly agree with the UK on 80% of its EU agenda.

On the Anglo-Irish relationship, we were equals in a forum where we both had friends who often did not distinguish between us. The EU partners reminded us we had an awful lot in common as countries. Being equal members of the club allowed the Irish to feel on a par with Britain, not looked down on. For the first time it gave the Irish a sense that both countries were allies.

Also on a day-to-day basis we agree with the British on a lot, for example protection of the common law system. Only two other EU countries use common law - Cyprus and Malta.

Both the UK and Ireland are economically liberal. The UK is an ex-imperial power, while the Irish are more multilateral, big fans of the EU because it is a multilateral forum where the small countries' rights are overseen by the European Commission.

Hugo Brady

  • Research fellow at Centre for European Reform think tank
  • Worked at Department of Foreign Affairs in Ireland and as researcher at Institute for European Affairs in Dublin

If the UK were to leave it would be less comfortable for Ireland. The EU would probably be less economically liberal without Britain, and a fast-developing area of EU law is judicial co-operation, but the UK and Ireland have opt-outs on that. Ireland is actually more conservative, it does not like aspects of judicial co-operation, because there is a movement towards more harmonisation of criminal and civil law.

The UK is Ireland's biggest trading partner and there is a common travel area with the UK. The Irish are very uncomfortable with UK talk of leaving. The euro is irreversible for us and it would be complicated to join a looser trading relationship with the UK.

Radek Sikorski, Polish foreign minister

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Radek Sikorski

I believe your interests, your trade patterns but also your political interests, lie in Europe”

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We hope Britain, with its genius in creating institutions, will help us to create solid European institutions.

Poland's position on the euro is different from Britain's - we have a derogation in time, you have an opt-out. We will ratify the Fiscal Treaty and have the right to be included in those discussions, because we will one day be a member of the euro.

We would like to have Britain on board because Britain is an important country, an important guardian of liberal rules within the common market.

We would be sorry to lose you because we have been friends and allies for many years and we would like to have you contribute.

Radek Sikorski

  • Foreign minister in Poland's centre-right government since 2007
  • 2002-2005 - Researcher at think tanks in Washington DC
  • In 1980s studied at Oxford University, then worked as foreign correspondent for British newspapers

I think it is important to explain to the British people the economic advantages of the EU, but also the political ones. For example, we have just imposed the toughest ever sanctions on Iran, which are having effects. Britain alone could not do it. So the EU is a force-multiplier for all of us, to do things that we cannot do on our own.

I know for example the US tells Britain: you are more valuable to us as an ally as a member of the EU, because you can affect the decisions made in the EU. Tony Blair thought creating a European superpower was a fine goal. David Cameron has said creating Britain as a sort of offshore Switzerland would be contrary to the British national interest.

It would be much better if British politicians made a patriotic, British argument about the usefulness of the EU to Britain, because I believe your interests, your trade patterns but also your political interests, lie in Europe, and we can achieve much more together.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 553.

    Say NO to the traitors who would have us ruled by foreign powers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 552.

    What Mr Cameron clearly needs to so is find the people in europe who will help him trim down this monster into something more closely resembling what it should be. I am not anti-europe, but it seems to me that a growing number of people in the EU are annoyed at how bloated it is getting. Trim it down, and the budget cuts his party, and much of the public, wants will follow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 551.

    520. ashleye17 - wow you are 20 and you want a say. I say get lost. You have no democratic right to one. Your opinion nor vote is important. The last people that had a vote for a completely different organisation called the EEC are now over 55 years old. Why do you think you deserve a say?

    Why does the BBC spell checker keep correcting my English into American English? How insulting is that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    Here's a Helping Hand to Just Call Me Dave.


    Dictate your Terms. Tell them want it's GOING to be - not what your "Opening Position" might be.

    No point having an Nuclear deterrent if you can't take it out of the box and polish the trigger once-in-a-while.

    Dave should get his "Pledge" out on the table!

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    Why are we even having this debate? The benefits of staying in Europe are so great that we're stalling progress simply by having this debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 548.

    530. Breadman
    What percentage of Mercedes, Philips etc sales are with the UK? At a guess, about 8%, since that’s the percentage of the EU’s trade with the UK. Would it be so difficult for them to make up 8% of lost sales elsewhere? How would British exporters make up for tariffs imposed on over half their own sales? The CBI is very clear on this: we need to stay in the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    The UK has a simple choice in my opinion. Either they should be fully in or fully out as this half in/half out situation that they currently have helps no-one.

    And please don't listen to your MPs when they say they will happily stay in if they re-negotiate powers as they have nothing to negotiate with except their rebate, and I can't see them giving that up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Trading with Europe. Yes
    The ECHR. No
    Open Borders. No.

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    I we left it would clear the air and if we were able to return, we would have to obey all the rules and proberbly adopt the euro, a forced marrage may work but it is still a force marrage and I would rather be seduced than raped

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    A well measured assessment from European sources on the benefits and cost of UK remaining part of EU. I still hold position that the majority of the UK (including myself) do not fully understand the common market and so could not possibly comment on the cost of the UK leaving the EU. Given that British banks own large volumes of Irish and Spanish debt I suspect leaving would cripple our economy

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    Leaving wont have any effect. We are a mass consumer market and if the EU impose taxes on our exports we will balance the books on imports. Tit for tat. Expect to see more Kia's on the road otherwsie. Government costs wont go up as we can trim all the red tape and if we were scratching around for more pennies we could probably round up 5 mil people to deport. Money savings everywhere you look.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    Until the EU submits even ONE set of audited accounts

    link to the Auditors report on EU accounts 2011
    including their "Statement of Assurance"

    "In the Court's opinion, the consolidated accounts of the European Union present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of the Union as of 31 December 2011"

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    Those of you who advocate a closer political union are living in a dream world - Europe would end up with a multitude of 'aligned' political parties but no true union of ideology, therefore all you will get is another layer of politicians sucking the coffers dry and giving nothing back to the people of Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    Every single one of these "leaders of Europe" is an obscure party member who has never achieved anything outside the secret world of closed door party deals.

    It is as though the BBC has become Pravda for a day, during the height of the Soviet reign.

    We are offered party members as our leaders, and though we never get to vote them out, we are told we voted them in.

    EXACTLY the same as the USSR.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.


    That's a very good point!

    "The BBC is only getting back SOME of Britain’s contribution to the EU."

    We have no say on how much, or who gets the rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    I like quite a few parts of being in the EU but what we get for what we donate is stupid.
    But even that I would be willing to pay for IF the EU didn't spend money like it was going out of fashion .. 5* hotels, dinners out every night, CHANGING COUNTRY every six months (can't annoy the French) ... It's like the MP expense scandal but a thousand times worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    If we do have a referendum, we should make it law that EVERYONE eligible to vote, votes! This way we ensure that the whole of the UK are having their say. As I have read in other posts, we do need the plain simple facts - the pros and cons; no hype, propaganda or threats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    More BIG LIES

    "How on earth is it in the UK's interests to have eighty odd percent of our laws made by politicians we have not elected"

    Where did you get that number from? Just pick it out of the air? It is a lie, a falsehood. If you are going to debate get your facts straight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    This is an argument about political union and economic ideology. Does the U.K. think it can ever bring liberal capitalism to the EU with democratically elected institutions and EU wide political parties which are accountble. The EU has failed its people - mass unemployment, a dodgy currency, unelected representatives in the council of leaders, a commission which ignores all parliaments, etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    Until the EU submits even ONE set of audited accounts, which it has failed to do since inception, the UK quite rightly should not increase contributions. I want to know where the billions of pounds, Euros etc floating around this unelected organisation gets really spent. I resent the fact none of these fools are held accountable for their actions. Out now.


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