Britain has always been the odd one out within the EU; declining to adopt the euro, going against general European opinion in “liberating” Iraq and generally having a poor reputation with the rest of Europeans. More recently David Cameron vetoed the European Fiscal Compact last year (tightening fiscal rules for countries in the EU) while Britain’s foreign secretary was excluded from a group of eleven European foreign ministers in trying to come up with a solution for the Euro crisis over the last year. Furthermore, Britain is also very hard to fit into the general pattern that has emerged in Europe, that of prudent northern nations and reckless southern nations. The likes of Germany and Holland lived within their means and are now footing the bill for the likes of Greece and Portugal that are drowning in their own debt and cut off from the international markets.
Britain would be considered one of the Northern nations geographically, but has finances more like those of Spain (another troubled country). For example, a high budget deficit to GDP ratio of 8.3% resembles Spain’s slightly lower ratio of 6.8% rather than Germany, who boast a far lower deficit to GDP ratio of 0.3%. But while Spain are facing talks of a bailout and bond yields near the levels of those that had to be bailed out (5.9% on ten year bonds), Britain are comfortably paying extremely low yields on their 10 year bonds, at 1.86% recently. Some argue this is because Britain holds the confidence of the international markets, as it still holds its AAA credit status, had a budget deficit reduction plan (albeit rather unsuccessful so far) and importantly has its own currency – allowing it to depreciate externally.
A graph showing the difference in the UK and Spain’s 10 year bond yields.
But just because Britain’s position within the EU is hard to place, it doesn’t mean they should leave, so next we will look at the positives and negatives for staying in the EU. A big positive is that the UK is part of the world’s largest single market, with free trade within the EU boosting the UK’s exports and imports (with protectionism not allowed). For example, 51% of the UK’s exports are to the rest of the EU, accounting for around £200 billion. Another benefit is the free movement of labour within in the EU, which has seen 3.5 million jobs created that are directly or indirectly linked to the EU. This also works the other way as Britons are allowed to move freely to different countries to find work. Both these measures help in cutting the regulation for firms and individuals as well, that for too long strangled the opportunities for business between different countries in Europe. For example the 27 different currencies made trade between multiple countries much more complicated and created instability as currencies could appreciate or depreciate too readily. Lastly investment is a bonus, as the UK is a good entry into the rest of the EU market for foreign firms, with the UK receiving £28 billion in 2009 from FDI. That is not to mention the increased togetherness of Europe now, with war highly unlikely and diplomatic relations at an all time high. But eurosceptic’s will argue differently, pointing to the current-account deficit of £33 billion in the first quarter of this year (a deficit to GDP ratio of 2.1%)) and the ever increasing contributions to the euro budget that outweigh, some think, the benefits that Britain receives.
UK FDI inflows in 2010 near $50 billion.
I would argue that being part of the EU has benefited Britain over the years, but that the real question is whether they should leave now? Britain is facing the costs of helping to bail out countries that have struggled to depreciate while being part of the euro, a currency that Britain doesn’t actually use. These bailouts have stemmed from a euro crisis, which is having a clear negative effect on Britain’s exports, investments and confidence. A full scale break-up of the EU would have dire consequences on Britain, as the nation’s banks are heavily linked with the rest of Europe and could conceivably collapse as part of a domino effect.
Showing the exposure of UK’s banks to the Eurozone.
Even considering that the EU doesn’t implode and instead moves towards further integration, is that where Britain wants to head towards? The country is already an outsider for having a separate currency; any further integration would surely lead to the adoption of the euro. It would also mean more loss of sovereign powers, as budgets would be decided in Brussels, debts spread across the whole union and credit transferred across countries to those nations that need it most (as what happens with the USA and its states). A country already angry at the loss of sovereign powers to the European High Court would be very reluctant to transfer even more control to central Europe. Another problem of further integration is that many believe this could only happen by shrinking the union itself. If so, the dropping of some unwanted countries would reduce the markets open to Britain substantially, reducing the benefits (more trade) of the single market and making the idea of staying in the EU more unattractive.
The nation’s future with the EU is clearly in doubt, with both possible outcomes leading to a big change in the relationship the country shares with the rest of Europe. For years it has gained all the benefits of being partly integrated and now it is facing all the problems. A referendum seems unlikely in the near future, as the public’s views is tainted with all the current media storm about the euro crisis, while the government would do better than to revolve the next election on whether the country stays in the EU.
So for now Britain will remain on the sidelines, as Europe moves towards an uncertain future, but sooner or later the nation will have to make a choice.