Britain and the EU: the new special relationship

A British flag and an EU flag are set up ahead of British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit at the European Commission in Brussels on January 29, 2016. Prime Minister David Cameron said today mooted EU reform proposals in response to Britain's demands were "not yet strong enough", ahead of a meeting with the European Commission's president. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

EU leaders at this week’s historic summit will finally confer on Britain the special status it craves.

Prime Minister David Cameron embarked on his renegotiation of EU membership terms promising a grand reform effort for the benefit of the whole bloc. Instead, it is culminating in a collective ritual to enshrine British exceptionalism.

For many in Brussels, the centre of the European project, Britain’s unique position is a self-evident nuisance that hardly requires attestation. But after decades of ever louder Eurosceptic moans from across the English Channel, three years of angst about a UK referendum, six months of diplomatic grind, the UK’s crowning moment of self-regard has arrived.

The question is what to call it.

EU leaders can take inspiration from the many attempts over the years to brand Britain’s wary  approach to EU membership. During the latter end of Margaret Thatcher’s time in Downing Street the buzzword was “semi-detached”.

Jacques Delors, her French socialist sparring partner as head of the European Commission, recently suggested offering London a “privileged partnership” to better reflect its self-imposed exile from Europe’s most ambitious enterprises: the euro and borderless passport-free travel.

Tony Blair, Britain’s last avowedly pro-EU prime minister, once accused the Eurosceptic right of seeking “associate membership”. Back then it was seen as an alarming threat; with Britain’s in-out EU referendum expected in June, Mr Blair would probably be delighted if those same Eurosceptics would settle for as little today.

A draft of Britain’s “new settlement” with the EU, as the British government calls it, also contains some suggestions. Buried in dense legalese deciphering the EU’s treaty mantra of “ever closer union”, a symbolic bugbear of British Eurosceptics, there is mention of the UK’s “specific situation” in the club. One senior eurozone official joked the euro-jargon roughly means: “we’ve given up trying to understand you”.

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