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Brake to political integration

Wings to the common market

The United Kingdom gave trade and EU enlargement momentum, but hindered its social and fiscal harmonization

The European institutions will lower the British flag this week in Brussels and say goodbye to a United Kingdom that has shared four long decades of the history of the European Union. His departure on January 31 leaves the aftertaste of a relationship more sour than sweet, sometimes distant and always threatening with a break that has come to arrive.

The disagreements and the worries take the palm, especially in the most recent memory. But the longer-term historical balance will probably be more balanced. And as Brexit's quarrel recedes, the memory of a country that has been one of the key pieces for the political, economic and geostrategic vision of the European Union will be valued in fair measure.

As tough negotiators as loyal to the agreements reached, the United Kingdom has left a very recognizable mark on some of the main community policies, from the birth of the internal market to the expansion of the club to Central and Eastern Europe. To its economic and demographic weight (second with higher GDP and third partner with more population), London added the effectiveness of a perfectly oiled administrative machinery and a recognized rule of law throughout the planet.

To the tangible losses for the EU, such as 16 of the club's GDP and 13 of the population, its contribution is added to the community coffers (it will leave a hole of about 10,000 million a year) and the weight on the world stage (The United Kingdom is together with France the only European power with nuclear weapons and permanent seat in the UN Security Council).

The negative counterweight of this contribution is that for 47 years London has clung to an EU model that only existed in its political, social and diplomatic imaginary. Europe is neither the simple market that some British yearned for nor the invading super-state that others feared.

“They have been an uncomfortable partner because they have always been setting foot on the brake of integration, but at the same time they have inspired very positive aspects, especially in economic policy,” summarizes Joaquín Almunia, who between 2004 and 2014 was European commissioner of Economy and, then, vice president and commissioner of Competition. Almunia highlights "the modernizing impulse of the British in areas of competition, liberalization or elimination of former monopolies, as well as a broad and open vision of the global scene."

The British impulse is attributed to the construction of the internal market, defined by a veteran community diplomat as “a fundamental advance in the history of the Union, a qualitative leap of great magnitude in relation to the initial common market”. Interestingly, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom she considers the first symbol of Euroscepticism, was one of the protagonists of that construction. "By eliminating barriers and making it possible for companies to operate at European level, we can better compete with the US, Japan and other emerging economic powers in Asia or elsewhere," Thatcher congratulated himself for creating a single market in his speech of 1988 at the European College of Bruges.

The European Commission responsible for undertaking this huge company was chaired by the French Jacques Delors. But, significantly, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market in the years of preparation was the British Lord Cockfield. The conquest of that market completed Thatcher's vision of the Union.

"The Treaty of Rome was thought to become a Charter for Economic Freedom," the prime minister condensed with a phrase very much to the liking of those years of reaganomics. "If the EU had limited itself to being a single market, perhaps the exit referendum would never have occurred," says a recent study commissioned by the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs on the role of the United Kingdom in the Union.

The triumph of the neo-liberal current driven by Reagan and Thatcher allowed the British Government to cherish its hope for a Europe transformed into a large market, with the City of London as the undisputed financial center. "For years, London exported to Brussels a liberalizing and modern vision of the economy," recalls a community diplomat.


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