Both the UK and the EU have rough times ahead. Neither one knows in what form they will exist in several years. In the UK there is a growing group of citizens wanting to leave the EU, while in Scotland more and more voices are calling for leaving the UK and then joining the EU. There is a growing sense of feeling in France that the obstructive Great Britain should rather leave the EU so France, together with Germany, can dominate a continental European system.
"I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe." These words, spoken by Napoleon, can simply be repeated 200 years later by the advocates of a 'United States of Europe'. Napoleon saw himself as a protagonist of the idea, but was unable to subjugate Great Britain. That is why he then set up a trade blockade in order to weaken the Brits. The British government once again learned that a united continent will turn against Great Britain. Napoleon eventually dug his own grave with his march against Moscow. On the Congress of Vienna the British diplomats were guided by only one thing: involvement with Europe, to avoid unity of the continent. In other words: in Europe, not run by Europe!
This continental unity seems to occur 200 years later, not through Napoleonic wars, but through a peaceful process of European legislation. The Euro zone in particular is becoming more and more a Brussels-dominated continental system - call it a fiscal union - which is threatening to marginalise the UK. The British are seizing the euro crisis to pry themselves loose from Brussels regulations and to aim for looser ties. The European Union is by far the largest market for British export. The political and economic elites in London want to keep it that way. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is the most pro European organisation and the financial centre of the City lies outside the Euro zone, but is the largest trade centre in Euros.
Strangely enough the British government is promoting a fiscal union in the euro zone (including fiscal transfers and euro bonds) and in doing so fosters a continental system that will turn against the UK. It goes against centuries of British rule of thumb in foreign policy. The French sense an opportunity and would rather want the British out of the EU. Christian Noyer, governor of the French Central Bank, recently stated that trade in Euros has to take place within the Euro zone. To London, this is a declaration of war. France has Germany in its grip politically, for Germany is weakened by its historic guilt, and on top of that France has many allies in Mediterranean Europe. The Napoleonic dream will come true after all.
The British government is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. First of all because of the threat of the Scottish exit out of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron parried the threat by suggesting a yes/no referendum in 2014. The Scottish are put on the spot. Most might potentially want maximum autonomy within the UK, but the Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond pleads for independence and is counting on automatic accession to the EU. This will however not be as automatic. An independent Scotland will become a candidate Member State of the EU. Every Member State can block the accession. It will not be London, but the Spanish government fearing that Catalonia will follow the Scottish example.
A bigger problem for Cameron is the strong euro sceptical wind blowing in England. He does not dare to propose a yes/no referendum on the British membership of the EU. 'No' will win. I am often invited by British conservatives to speak as a 'non-Brit' on party meetings. In London that is doable, but outside arguing in favour of the EU is impossible. Political arguments or trade figures do not reach the audience. There is a deep-rooted aversion of Brussels: the emotions are in charge. The Brits become very angry if Europe is mentioned. At the yearly Conservative Party conference the topic is a taboo. More and more British MPs feel the cold wind within their constituencies, which makes them even more euro sceptical in Westminster.
Cameron is trying to negotiate a new, distant arrangement with Brussels, which would allow the UK to stay in the internal market: a Swiss model. The question is whether the French will let the British get away with this. Resentment and envy continue to be the demons of Europe. The UK is the jumping board to the European continental market for many American, Japanese and Chinese firms. The French want the British out of the EU so those companies will have to come to the continent, preferably to France. Within the EU there of course has to be fiscal harmonisation, to a French level. This continental system, just like the one 200 years ago, is a danger for the UK, for the Netherlands and ultimately Europe. It would be better if the British would stay, in whichever role.
(This was my last column for this newspaper. I thank the editor for the chances I got and I thank the readers for their interest)