The British government plans to opt out of 130 European Union laws on crime, justice and policing, Home Secretary Theresa May announced on October 15. The euroskeptic Daily Express newspaper heralds the announcement as “Britain’s First Step to EU Exit.”
They’re right. A large segment of the British public has long been unhappy with Britain’s place in the EU. But for years Britain continued to drift closer to Europe. London gave Brussels more and more power over Britain and even signed the Lisbon Treaty despite widespread opposition.
Then, last December, this drift toward Europe stopped as Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed the fiscal pact. The other EU nations moved on, leaving Britain behind.
Now, Britain has done more than simply stop: It has reversed direction.
Its opting out of the crime and justice laws marks the first time that any European nation has backed away from ever closer union.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, Britain can opt out of all of the roughly 130 laws on crime and justice. Afterward, it can negotiate with the EU to opt in to certain laws.
The current situation has led to gross miscarriages of justice, with civil rights organizations condemning the system that has left British citizens languishing in foreign jails for years without trial.
Any government, especially a Tory one, has to acknowledge the EU’s increasingly shaky legitimacy in the UK—where polls suggest a majority want to withdraw from the union altogether. Against this backdrop, to concede a further loss of national control—in such a sensitive area to an unaccountable court—would invite a backlash.
The opt out comes after eight cabinet ministers called for Britain to renegotiate its relationship with the EU or walk out. One of the most popular members of the government, Education Secretary Michael Gove, said Britain should leave the EU unless the other nations allow it to fundamentally change its relationship. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond supported him, and the Mail reports that six other ministers privately agreed.
With the europhile Liberal Democrats in Britain’s governing coalition, Britain may try to opt back in to more laws that most conservatives want. But Britain still won’t adhere to as many of the criminal justice laws as it does now. It will be a change in direction for Britain—it’s only a question of how quickly it moves.
Germany Gives Up on Britain
It’s not just British ministers that see that Britain and Europe are heading for a split. Europe’s most powerful nation, Germany, has also come around to the same view.
Spiegel Online reported how German Chancellor Angela Merkel once went out of her way to keep Britain in Europe—but not anymore. Merkel’s hopes for a Europe with Britain “have now been dashed,” it wrote. “The German government is convinced that the Euro Group will be the core of a new, more deeply integrated Europe.” It wrote that “the chancellor has long since come to terms with the fact that there will no longer be a path back to the center of the union for the British.”
This reality doesn’t just apply to financial integration. “Last fall, the British blocked an attempt by the other 26 EU member states to establish a joint headquarters for military missions,” Spiegel wrote. “Now the plan is to be revived and implemented, even against London’s resistance, if necessary.”
It’s not just Britain that the Germans see going it alone. “On the one side of the current divide is a hard core of countries that want to work together more closely,” said Spiegel. “On the other side are countries like Great Britain, Denmark and Sweden, which are essentially condemned to be spectators if they no longer wish to join the rest. The dream of an expanding and more tightly integrated Greater Europe is over.”
Germany has paused and waited for Britain to come along. Now, that wait is over: The Germans have committed to moving on without them.
A Messy Divorce
Britain plans to opt out of the crime and justice laws, and then opt back in to the individual laws it believes are actually useful. Britain’s leaders, including Mr. Cameron, see this as the ideal approach to Britain’s whole relationship with the EU: Renegotiate everything so Britain gets the free trade it wants and jettisons the regulations it hates.
But this approach requires the cooperation of every EU nation. On the crime and justice laws, just one other EU nation can prevent Britain from opting in.
Britain is hoping the EU will be reasonable. Already it looks like they won’t.
One anonymous EU official has warned that Britain could be forced to pay a “financial penalty” to cover the administrative costs involved. This penalty is thought to be several million pounds. This could be only the start. Any EU nation could try to use the crime and justice negotiations to blackmail Britain. They’d be cutting off their nose to spite their face if they did so, but it would hardly be the first time that has happened in international relations.
In their article, Spiegel Online compared Britain to Statler and Waldorf, the two muppets that sit in a box and hurl insults at the performers on The Muppet Show. Several British papers reported that the comparison comes from a frustrated Angela Merkel.
British conservatives are hoping the split on policing laws can lead to a friendly renegotiation of Britain’s relationship in Europe. Instead, the signs so far are that Britain is heading for a messy divorce. Britain is frustrated with European interference. Europe is fed up with Britain getting in the way as it tries to sort out the eurocrisis.
Europe is inexorably drifting to the outcome the Bible prophesied centuries ago. Britain is heading out, while the union is consolidating into a smaller group of 10 nations that will pursue closer integration until they become a superstate.