Bursting the Bubble

Britain in Europe: An Amputation, Prosthetic Limb or a Benign Island?

20 May 2013 | by

These are the three options open to the UK on the issue of Europe. The rise of UKIP and the Tory implosion on the topic go a long way to suggest how it may end. I offer my own theory of how events may unfold between now and this fateful referendum.

It is over two weeks since the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) performed unexpectedly well in local elections across England.   In the two weeks since, the Tory Party has begun the age-old debate on Europe (age-old at least for someone of my years, who came to know the Tory party for their inability to form a common  [sense]  stance on Europe). Without focusing on any other policy areas (although the Tory’s broad shift to the Right of British politics is manifest in many policy areas way beyond Europe), over the past few days we have seen drama in the Tory Party over the Europe issue not seen since the John Major years.

The current death throes of common-sense Tory policy on Europe in the UK (as advocated by the usual offenders – Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke) were indeed sparked by the rise of UKIP on one hand, and the [re]emergence of the EU-debate in certain parts of the UK as the EU concerns itself with the crisis surrounding the euro on the other. The Tories see this crisis as an opportunity to create a “new deal” with Europe and repatriate certain, unspecified, powers to Westminster (and be assured, on no account would they be repatriated to local government or devolved institutions, oh the horror…). The delight of British Europhobes at the struggles surrounding the Single Currency has not been a vote winner to continental Europeans, angered at naked British opportunism at a time of real-crisis in Europe.

Indeed, although German Chancellor Merkel is (rightfully) distressed at losing the UK – a key ally in outvoting protectionist France and “Club Med” – she has spoken forcefully of ‘no cherry-picking’ (keine Rosinenpickerei) – what affords the UK this special status? It didn’t even join the club until 1974! (what barbarity). The infamous ‘Brexit’ would be detrimental to both the EU and the UK. It seems the UK must decide, as an island divided into four different constituent countries with a coalition government, whether it wishes to amputate itself from the EU (exactly who is amputated from whom would presumably differ across the channel), win back these supposedly vital concessions (after all, the UK didn’t receive opt-outs for the euro, Schengen zone, or justice and home affairs – wait a min…1) and become, or at least continue to be, Europe’s prosthetic limb, or finally,  become a benign island, posing no harm to Brussels (and vice-versa – of course!).

The rise of UKIP (the other major factor in this almost nauseating right-wing psycho-drama) is a little less politically nuanced than the balance of UK national interest and creation of a European Banking Union and other forms of integration between Eurozone states. UKIP, beyond their hatred of Europe (and don’t let them whisper in your ear that they ‘love Europe, hate the EU’ – trust your first instincts upon initially spotting that Cheshire cat smile and psychedelically purple tie), also hate any form of social progression beyond 1949. Their anti-Gay Rights stance appeals to those angered that Tory moderates initiated Equal Marriage legislation to make the Party appeal to the middle ground.

The centre-left Labour Party remains (albeit less so than in 2010) associated with the global economic crash and, formally go-to protest party, the Liberal Democrats, are part of the current Coalition (a Coalition doomed neither left/centre enough for Lib Dems, nor right enough for an increasingly schizophrenic Conservative Party). Therefore Jonny-foreigner-hating, gay marriage-opposing, straight-talking (no pun intended) pub-and-pint-loving UKIP has capitalised on this political deadlock.  However, all is not so rosy for UKIP’s future prospects. Stories of UKIP counsellors embroiled in argument over racist comments, drawings, and paraphernalia are a daily occurrence.  People enjoy a protest party, especially in today’s rather more unique political circumstances. But people may not enjoy a hard-right bunch of inexperienced first-timers being responsible for delivering public services. The same happened for the BNP in 2008, before their political collapse. Hating the EU in the UK is not difficult. Running local authorities, well that is a different matter.

Returning then, to the Tories, and the fateful decision the British people may be called to make in 2017, what does the future hold? This week David Cameron has been forced to concede to back-bench pressure by offering legislative proof that a Tory government will hold a referendum. The timing could hardly be worse for Cameron, forced to deal with the embarrassment of his own party whilst in Washington, as the EU and US get ready to sign  the largest free-trade deal in history. As mentioned above, the Germans (as well as the Dutch, Swedish, Polish, Austrians and others) do not want a ‘Brexit’ – shaking faith in the EU and altering the balance of power. Therefore Cameron may walk away with (just) enough red-meat to offer the British people in a referendum.  However his career post-2015 will  either be doomed upon not being re-elected as Prime Minister, or in 2017, one day after the referendum. Cameron faces campaigning for British EU membership and losing, a vote of no-confidence if there ever was one, or campaigning for British EU membership and winning, at which point he will be leader of a party which detests him – and back-stabbing is (alongside horse-riding selling public healthcare to private companies) a long-standing  Tory pass-time.

There can be no question that an amputation would be as damaging to Europe (both its continental and island components) as the images the word itself conjures. The UK has been a prosthetic limb since 1992 and, although far from perfect, this does cater for both ‘British exceptionalism’ and Eurozone integration – a true European compromise. Finally, the UK might become a benign island. This is indeed optimistic to the point of being farcical, especially if talk of euro-adoption is heard once again. But, should the UK finally put this politically-ancient debate to rites – with a few 2015 concessions perhaps, much time, energy and enthusiasm could be placed on healing both the British and eurozone economies.

1 It appears that the UK does have opt-outs from EU policy and initiatives.

What do you think?