19th Sep 2020


Reform the EU, with or without Britain

  • The EU needs to reform itself. The outcome of the British referendum should be respected, whatever the outcome might be. (Photo:

On Thursday 23 June, Britain will vote on whether in to stay or to leave the EU.

From a Dutch, British and European perspective, I wholeheartedly support Britain staying in the EU. The influence and position of both the UK and the EU will decline in case of a Brexit. Scots, Welsh and the Northern-Irish could opt for leaving the UK in order to remain part of the EU. I fear this could turn Great Britain into little England.

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If Britain choses to leave the EU, demands for referendums in other member states on EU membership would increase. Bottles of Crimean Champagne will be opened in the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, the choice of the British people needs to be respected.

The UK is a crucial ally of the Netherlands in the EU and provides a counterweight against French-German dominance. Moreover, the Dutch and Brits are pushing in Brussels for the same agenda: eliminating unnecessary regulation, empowering national parliaments on European legislation (red card), completing the internal market and negotiating more free trade agreements to foster economic growth and jobs.

It would be a dramatic loss if British people decided to leave the EU, not only for the EU, but also for the Netherlands and Britain itself. However, a Brexit should not end up in a messy divorce.

Instead, Britain should leave the EU as a friend and we should maintain close cooperation in other international fora, like Nato, the OECD, the OSCE, the WTO and the Council of Europe.

Based on constructive negotiations, the conditions under which Britain would leave the EU could be formulated as well as a way in which future relations between the EU and the UK would be shaped.

We cannot simply give the cold shoulder to permanent member of the UN Security Council, with a robust democracy, solid economy and strong army. The EU and UK need to remain friends and allies.

Hollow threats

With the Leave camp seeming to lead the polls, the EU launched a desperate offensive, which may turn out to be counterproductive.

The president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker referred to the Brits as "deserters", who, in case of a Brexit "won't be welcomed with open arms".

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was guilty of exaggeration in saying that a Brexit "could destroy western political civilisation".

The British people have a firm nature: those who withstood the Blitz won't be impressed by these kind of hollow threats.

External pressure is counterproductive, as the Dutch saw during the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 (61.1 percent against), and the consultative referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement, that took place in April 2016 (61 percent against).

I was personally in favour of both the EU Constitution and the EU-Ukraine association agreement.

But all kinds of terrible predictions about the collapse of Europe in case of a No-vote fuelled the No campaigns. The Brits were not convinced by the visit of US president Obama to the UK, they were rather provoked.

Reforms are the only way forward

In case Britain leaves the EU, it would be a setback and a last wake-up call for the union.

As first vice president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans stated, a Brexit would be "a failure of all European politics". The stormy rise of eurosceptic and populist parties across Europe means "More Europe" is certainly not the solution.

The only way forward is the way of reforms.

The deal brokered by prime minister Cameron and the other 27 EU member states needs to be implemented, preferably with, but if necessary, without the Brits.

Eliminate burdensome regulation, empower national parliaments in the European legislative procedures (red card), pursue a strict immigration and refugee policy, strengthen European external borders and create a truly internal market.

The EU needs to reform itself. Otherwise it will gradually unravel. The outcome of the British referendum should be respected, whatever that might be.

Hans van Baalen is ALDE party president and leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in the European Parliament


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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