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European Ideas on An Interview with Maurice Fraser about Britain and the European Union: Independence(s), Influence and Defence collaboration

8th May 2012

Maurice Fraser is Senior Fellow in European Politics at the LSE European Institute. He was special adviser to UK Foreign Secretaries Sir Geoffrey Howe, John Major and Douglas Hurd. In 2008, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his service to France and Europe, with specific recognition for his service to intellectual and academic ties between France and Britain. He was interviewed by Juliette Roche, European Ideas Ambassador at the LSE.

There have been speculations about Britain leaving the European Union (EU) to become just a member of the Single Market; do you think that this is a plausible option?

Britain has come a very long way in its relationship with the European Union and it is simply unrealistic to suppose that Britain could negotiate a status effectively outside the structures of the European Union and just maintain its participation in the Single Market. The idea that Britain’s partners would not to try to exact some kind of price for that à la carte kind of membership is unrealistic and I think it is something that Eurosceptics in Britain have not really understood. They think there is such a à la carte possibility - where Britain would just take part in the Single Market. But this is unrealistic. For the Single Market to work effectively you need strong institutions and strong law  - and the UK has a close interest in strong European institutions and the rule of law.

Would the membership of the EU of Scotland come automatically or can countries such as Spain obstruct it?

I think it is highly unlikely that any European country would try to frustrate the ambition of an eligible and suitably qualified country to join the EU, especially a country as economically advanced as Scotland with a structure of governance and level of development that meets all the European standards. Moreover, Scotland is part of the UK, which has embraced the acquis communautaire since 1973. The idea that one country like Spain would veto Scottish accession simply because it is worried about the possible secessionist tendency of its own regions such as Catalunya is highly improbable.

According to you, how would Scotland as a proper Member State act politically?

If Scotland were to choose independence and join the European Union, we can make an educated guess as to the type of government it would have. Would it be economically liberal and join England and the Scandinavian countries on the side of a free market, deregulated, competitive Europe, or would it tend towards dirigisme and protectionism? The latter seems more likely: after all, the Scottish National Party is to the left of the British consensus, is more statist in terms of economic policies, and would close the nuclear defence bases on its territory. It would be a feisty and not exactly ‘mainstream’ political presence in the EU, though the realities of power may well push it towards more centrist ground.

Could it be a possible new member of the Eurozone?

It’s impossible to predict what the Scottish people will judge to be in their interest several years down the line. And even if an independent Scotland might wish to signal its determination to join the European mainstream by joining the euro ( assuming the current crisis is satisfactorily addressed ), we shouldn’t underestimate the deep scepticism  about the euro which it would inherit from the current UK-wide national debate and years of British hostility to the idea of euro membership, which at once colour and reflect public attitudes. To say nothing of the difficulty of predicting the shape of the eurozone in three to four years from now. Will it include over 20 countries, or will we be talking about a ‘hard core’ eurozone of, say, eight to ten countries? So I’d say it is far too early to risk predictions about Scotland and the Euro.

It is well known that there is an under-representation of the UK within the European Institutions; what are the consequences for the British influence and how can British officials change this situation?

I think it is keenly understood in London, certainly in Whitehall, that Britain is under-represented in the EU institutions. It’s not the case at the top of the institutions – at director – general and director level, for instance. Indeed, most senior British officials with key portfolios are very highly regarded. The worries concern the rungs rather further down the ladder – the shortage of young British officials in the 25 to 45 age bracket, both in the Commission and the Council. The British government is very aware of the problem and the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, has travelled around British universities encouraging young British people and students to look pro-actively and enthusiastically at the possibility of a career in the European institutions. Brussels is not really on the radar screen of most young talented British people and the government needs to find them and sensitise them. . Clearly Britain needs to raise its game in Brussels because further years down the line, there is a risk that the British voice will be heard less and less. Not only is that not in Britain’s national interest: it’s something many of Britain’s partners would regret as well.

How can the UK help the EU to maintain its power and influence?

Britain has a crucial role to play ensuring that the EU remains a serious global power and this is in two respects. First of all, in the area of security and defence, Britain along with France is the most serious player in the EU, and the rest of the EU looks to Britain and to France not only to use their global reach to the full in the diplomatic arena, but also to project hard power - that is, military power - on the international stage when necessary. The two countries, almost uniquely in the EU, have global perceptions of their interests and global reach in terms of diplomatic infrastructure, along with a keen sense that what they do looks to the world like the ‘European’ response. For all its ‘ euroscepticism’ (or ‘euro-realism’, according to taste) Britain’s Conservative-led government seems to understand this clearly.

Britain’s second role to play, and I think it is very important, is in economic terms - ensuring that the EU remains a global economic and competitive power able at the very least to secure its interests in the face of competition from the fast-developing economies: China, India, Brazil, and all the countries we all know well by now. And I think that what marks out  Britain’s position is her determination that the EU should remains open, free-trading and  competitive, resisting the siren calls of protectionism and European exceptionalism.

Remaining competitive means that Europe should not place unnecessary costs and regulations on its industries and businesses, or put in place punitive tax regimes. In a globalised world, the EU has no such luxury. A ‘ Fortress Europe’ would be a massive own goal. So I think the liberal presence of the UK is very important to ensure that Europe should hold true to the founding principle of the original Treaty of Rome: freedom of movement for people, services, goods and capital. To that we should add the EU’s enlargement, certainly to the rest of the Western Balkans after Croatia, assuming of course that all the conditions of membership are met. And then, one day hopefully, to Turkey. The current ‘enlargement fatigue’ is pervasive and will not be easily dispelled. It falls to Britain to help ensure that the key component of the EU’s soft power which is the prospect of EU membership should not be discarded from the EU’s foreign policy armoury. Europe has built five hundred years of innovation and growing prosperity upon openness. We forget that at our peril.

How is the current state of the Defence partnership between France and Britain in the context of the European Union and can it be extended to other European countries?

I think French and British defence collaboration is taking off in a far more ambitious way than anybody could have anticipated until only recently. The Lancaster House Treaty signed in late 2010 really marked an important milestone and is highly significant for Europe as a whole. What has been agreed is pretty far-reaching stuff, including very close collaboration in the nuclear defence area, in the joint procurement of weapons system, exchanges of military staff, joint exercises, and, significantly, the creation of a joint Franco-British expeditionary force for small- and medium-size operations We know the reasons for such a closer collaboration: Britain and France share interests and a basic strategic analysis. And of course there are the sheer facts of economic life: right now there just isn’t the money to boost or even maintain military capabilities on a purely national level. So it makes sense to pool resources. I think what is striking is the real political will that exists now to focus on practical projects and ‘deliverables’. The level of cooperation, of exchanges between the military staff and the officials, just in the past few months between London and Paris has been remarkable, with the Libya campaign obviously playing its part. This is good news for Europe aspirations to build a Common Security and Defence Policy fostered by the Saint Malo agreement of 1998, and in a way which is entirely Atlantic Alliance- compatible, and supported by the US, which (without exactly holding its breath!) sees the prospect of a little more burden-sharing with its European partners. 

The question that arises is what if more countries somewhere down the line want to take part in this arrangement? The sense in London and Paris seems to be that they would be very welcome. Of course they would have to join on terms set by Britain and France. In the first instance it would make sense for Britain and France to work out all the details of cooperation, but there is no reason why this should remain an exclusive relationship even if it has begun its life as a purely bilateral treaty. Of course the nuclear dimension will remain an exclusively bilateral one, but if others countries can add value operationally, then it will be highly desirable to accept them.

But this is not for now. Most immediately, we need to see if there real willingness in London and Paris to make these treaty commitments work on the ground. The signals from Paris are that this new chapter in defence cooperation would survive a change of president and government in the coming weeks, if this is what happens. As for which European countries might wish to take part, I would expect there to be several candidates – namely, those countries which have a more global understanding of their security interests and responsibilities, and not just of their immediate homeland security. And who have traditionally been prepared to make a serious contribution of personnel to theatres of conflict. Certainly Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark spring to mind, but no doubt there will be others. 

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