Britain received a polite reminder from the most senior civil servant in the European Commission that it could not cherrypick what it wanted from EU membership and warned of a split unless it made a commitment.
The Swiss vote rejecting free movement for EU citizens means it now faces exclusion from other aspects such as research funding — a clear indication of the reality, warned secretary general of the European Commission, Catherine Day.
British membership was one of three major issues the new Commission had to deal with, along with boosting the economic recovery and migration where Europe needed migrants but must control the numbers.
She warned that if Britain did not commit for this generation to remain in the Union, then the UK and the EU would go their separate ways.
“The position of the British government is that it wants to repatriate competences, but that is not the position of other member states,” she said. “Countries want to discuss what is done at national level, how it is done, but they are very clearly saying they do not want to repatriate competences.”
Both the German and Dutch governments have talked about the balance of power between the EU and the national governments. However, Ms Day said she does not detect an appetite to repatriate powers.
Day said that, when the time comes, the EU would have to see if it was possible to negotiate an agreement that was sufficiently attractive for the UK.
“What happened in Switzerland is a very clear test and shows the limits of only wanting to take the advantages and not wanting to take any the responsibilities that go with membership,” Day told a meeting of the European Movement Irish branch in Brussels.
“It is the very ardent position of the Commission that we want to see the UK stay in, we think it is good for Europe and it’s good for them, but at the end of the day you have to work through a process where they decide that it is good for them.”
Asked about young people from Ireland and Britain working in the European institutions, Day said that the jobs had become attractive once again for Irish people following “more than a whiff of scepticism” during the Celtic Tiger years, which was now over.
However, the position was very different for people in the UK, where there was strong scepticism and a lot of people would not like to say to their family or friends that they wanted to join a European institution.
“That will only be dealt with as part of the bigger issue, if the UK at some point has to go through the psychological moment of committing to stay in — I do not necessarily mean enthusiastically — but some heading once and for all for this generation that their future is in Europe and make that commitment, but without that I think the two paths will diverge,” Day said.
However, the outcome of any vote should not be anticipated as the mood of the time can influence the issue, for instance when the European economy is wronger and the euro is a strong currency.
“You have to let time do its work and I think this is one of those times,” Day said.
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