Announced in February 2016 and bargained arduously between British officials and the 27 other member states, the agreement renegotiating the United Kingdom’s status in the European Union (EU) appears to focus almost exclusively on matters of British domestic concern.
The main issues directly at stake relate to social and economic policy, as well as British sovereignty. Prime Minister David Cameron has sought opt-outs from the principle of an “ever closer union”, restrictions on the entitlements of EU migrants to welfare benefits in the UK, and exemptions from EU regulations for London’s financial services sector. The UK has reaffirmed its desire to remain outside the single currency.
While foreign and security policy issues are likely to be at the periphery of the debate in Britain as the country’s future concerning the EU is discussed before this year’s 23 June referendum, a potential British exit (Brexit) from the EU might still hold some wider security implications for other EU member states, notably the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Firstly, it has long been the Baltic argument that their national security stands to benefit most from an EU that is both resolute and united. The British initiative to radically rethink its relationship with the EU in recent years has had the effect of galvanizing a number of Eurosceptic parties and populations elsewhere in Europe. For example, the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has stated that should Britain leave the EU, there will be calls made among the largely Eurosceptic Czech public to discuss seriously their country’s possible route towards the EU exit door.
The same might apply to Hungary under Viktor Orbán’s current leadership. Since 2010, Orbán’s Fidesz Party has introduced a number of less-than-liberal domestic reforms. Relations between Brussels and Budapest have often been hostile as a consequence. As a frontline state during Europe’s recent immigration crisis, Hungary’s problematic approach has created some heated disputes between Budapest and the wider EU. A continuation of these problems combined with the precedent of a possible Brexit could prompt Hungary also to question seriously its future within the EU.
These issues appear not to impact the Baltic states directly; however, they should nonetheless be cause for Baltic concern. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have sought to be among the group that is the most integrated should a “two-speed” EU ever fully emerge.
However, the presence of other states that are either semi-integrated or isolated on the fringes of the EU are likely to be exposed to Russian efforts to exert greater influence on European affairs as Moscow seeks to gain power by continually exploiting the EU’s divides and disagreements. Russian strategy has in the past sought to exasperate difficulties between the EU and Greece and Cyprus, respectively, as both these member states experienced acute economic problems during the recent European debt crisis. Relations between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary are currently cordial. As a Brexit would be an event standing to increase the political capital of those elsewhere wishing to promulgate a problematic “two-speed” Europe, the implications in this regard from a Baltic standpoint are not positive.
Secondly, a Brexit would be a setback for those wishing to see a strong role continue for the United States in European security. Perceived as an imperative for their national security, the Baltic states have long advocated a security link between the United States and Europe that is as durable as possible.
Since World War II, the UK has been the main deputy for the US, long serving to politically anchor the transatlantic security link in Europe. It must be stated that should the UK leave the EU, the UK will still remain a member of NATO. London can thus serve to anchor the transatlantic link and contribute to Baltic security through this organization. However, the EU still has a strong role to play in security affairs. A Brexit would be a significant event that would possibly reduce US influence in its relations with the EU, and this at a time when Washington is already “rebalancing” its foreign policy focus towards Asia. This development would not be good news from a Baltic security policy standpoint.
Should a Brexit occur in the near future, the timing would be particularly poor concerning the strength of alternative Atlanticist voices within the EU’s largest member states. Washington will struggle to find another major state in the EU with which it has the same high level of trust that has long shared with the UK.
For a number of years after accession in 2004, Poland looked as if it could be a major Atlanticist voice within the EU, especially among the newer eastern member states. However, the controversy created by the recent election of the Law and Justice Party in Poland and accusations that the party is retreating from certain aspects of liberal democracy have created reservations in Washington as well as in Brussels.
Thus, a UK that is fully engaged in the EU remains the best option for those that wish to see a strong transatlantic influence upon EU foreign policy-making. Without London, this policy area would be destined to be dominated by France and Germany. Compatible with the Baltic security perception, the US and the UK have in the past taken a harder line towards Russia. By comparison, while demonstrating solidarity with their Baltic partners, France and Germany can frequently take a more moderate view towards Moscow. This prompts Baltic fears that both Paris and Berlin might gradually attempt to lead the EU’s relations with Russia away from sanctions and back to a “business as usual” approach.
A UK presence strongly involved in formulating EU foreign policy is likely to provide a safeguard against this. Hence, the continuation of Britain’s EU membership may well prove vital towards ensuring that a balance best suiting Baltic interests remains at the centre of the EU’s foreign relations.
Eoin Micheál McNamara is a PhD researcher at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu.