In the 40 years since Britain joined the Common Market, it has managed to infuriate most of its European partners at one point or another and sometimes all of them simultaneously. Margaret Thatcher famously brought European decisionmaking to a halt in 1984 until Britain was granted a rebate she deemed satisfactory on its contributions to the budget, and there have been many other flaming rows before and since, over issues ranging from fishing to finance. So it's not surprising, at a time when Prime Minister David Cameron is openly raising the possibility of a British exit from the E.U., that some people on the Continent are saying, "Good riddance."
Yet most aren't. Beneath the surface irritation with "perfidious Albion" lurks a strong undercurrent of both concern and regret. Regret that the national debate in Britain has come to this point and concern about what would happen if the British really were to pull out of the E.U.
For the reality is that, despite its sharp elbows and often imperious attitude, Britain has actually played a defining role in the E.U., helping to shape many of the policies that best characterize it today. Europe's relatively open attitude to international trade, its consumer-focused competition policy that has no time for "national champions" and its broadly Atlanticist view of the world in which the U.S. is fundamentally a partner rather than a counterweight: all of these have British fingerprints on them.
The U.K. didn't act alone, but its role has been significant because it's willing, and usually eager, to fight for principles. "The Brits are prepared to take the rap and be strident about it, at all levels," says one veteran official at the European Commission. For example, Germany and some other northern European countries are no less keen than Britain on unfettered domestic markets, but when Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 tried to remove a reference to "free and undistorted competition" in a new E.U. treaty, it was Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown who wrestled the French President to the ground. Would other countries have reacted as strongly if the Brits hadn't been there? No, reckons Alec Burnside, managing partner at the Brussels office of U.S. law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. If Britain were to leave the E.U., "the risk is that the 'Sarkozy school' would stage further ambushes."
This is precisely the sort of outcome that Charles de Gaulle feared when he twice effectively vetoed Britain's application to join the European Economic Community, in 1963 and 1967. At the time, de Gaulle argued that Britain's economy was incompatible with that of the six founding members France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg and accused it of being hostile to European integration. On that point, he was prescient: Britain has tended to be at best skeptical about tighter integration, pushing instead for a more open E.U., which has since grown to 27 members.
Not all the spats have been with France. It was a French president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, who implemented the landmark "single market" program in the late 1980s, egged on by London and with the help of a British commissioner, Leon Brittan, who oversaw key parts of the program. Britain and France, both nuclear powers, also work closely together to determine the bloc's defense and security policy. Just this month they joined forces in Mali.
London has also lost some of the arguments. It failed to prevent E.U. legislation on social issues including working hours and labor representation on boards, and instead simply opted out of them. It's noticeably absent from two of the E.U.'s biggest projects: the single currency and the Schengen Agreement that allows movement from country to country without passport controls.
If Britain really were to leave the E.U. and for all his saber rattling, Cameron wants to stay in the union, just on improved terms the current delicate balance between powers would undoubtedly be altered. France would be a very junior partner to Germany economically but the dominant power militarily. That might present an opportunity for Italy and Spain, and perhaps Poland, to play a more central role in policymaking.
But who will stand up and shout for greater accountability and less dirigisme? Who will complain about overpaid Eurocrats and wasteful farm subsidies? The Franco-German TV channel Arte this month ran a program anticipating Britain's exit from the E.U. in 2015. Its conclusion: "Even if the British have been a pain, it's better to have them in than out." That pretty much sums up the prevailing sentiment on the Continent.