On Jan. 23rd 2013, the British Prime Minister David Cameron gave-in to Eurosceptic pressure and promised to hold a referendum on British EU-membership, should the Conservative Party win a parliamentary majority in 2015. This decision is a gamble with the British economy causing waves of uncertainty across the Union. The reasons for this move are complex, but I will try to give an outline of what set Britain on this dangerous and unwanted path. It is my belief, that this decision was not driven by the fact that Britain is an Island-Nation, but by an Island-Notion.
There exists a wealth of literature on the UK’s rocky relationship with the EU. Regardless of whether or not you speak to a Europhile or Eurosceptic, one thing remains certain, at street-level, the Brits do not like the EU. Casual yet consistent complaints about excessive regulation or ‘more rules from bonkers-Brussels’ is common place. The British also suffer from an unhealthy obsession with the Second World War. Ironic, given that a country so inclined to reminding itself of Europe’s darkest hour never, even in the 60’s and 70’s, accepted the (then) European Community as a way of establishing peace in Europe. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize 2012, many of Britain’s Eurosceptic politicians such as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spoke of NATO as the guarantor of the Pax Europa, not the EU.
It is true, in my opinion, that to the detriment of the British people, some of the most basic, yet valuable achievements of European integration such as the removal of internal borders for people, goods and services or the freedom of establishment regardless of nationality, to name but a few, are not readily apparent to the Brits. This, of course, is the problem of being an Island-Nation. But wait, the Irish, with strong historical links to the UK, Cypriots, and Scandinavians (albeit also notable for their affinity with Euroscepticism) do, however, not share the same level of hostility towards the EU that is found in the UK.
The absence of the euro also attributes to the loss of a sense of feeling part of the European project. Being an Island-Nation without the euro, the British are sure to feel cut-off from the EU ‘core’. But wait, the Danish are privy to the same euro opt-out and Sweden has also declined to adopt the single currency. Furthermore only 17 of the remaining 24 EU member states use the single currency and many, although legally obliged to do so, face a long journey to euro-adoption. A willingness on the part of the EU, as a whole, not to force the euro on the Brits should have done more to assure the Brits that their concerns were taken seriously by “Brussels”, instead, the reverse has been the case.
I have been quite broad and looked at Britain, or the UK, in a general sense. However, as Westminster is dominated by calls to re-negotiate or even sacrifice British EU-membership, in the Scottish capital, the independence campaign stresses its commitment to the EU, in order to ‘sure up’ votes. My apologies, you may be confused. By independence campaign, I didn’t mean that of the Conservative right or hard-line UK Independence Party (UKIP), I referred rather to the Scottish independence movement – which seeks independence from the UK, but to remain part of the EU. Part of the heated argument in Edinburgh is not if Scotland should be in the EU, but rather that it will 100% remain in the EU should it succeed from the UK. It is almost funny that such debates in London and Edinburgh are taking place simultaneously, were the stakes not so high.
Quite simply, the argument that Brits cannot engage with the EU because of geography is hard to believe, so is the UK’s feeling towards the EU based on that of an Island-Nation, or an Island-Notion? Two factors, each something unique and ‘home-grown’ (true in each member state) could be viewed as the root causes of Britain’s sometimes hysterical perspective on Europe. These are domestic politics and the media landscape.
Both of the UK’s two main political parties, the left-leaning Labour Party and the right-leaning Conservatives have both suffered from deep internal divisions over the question of Europe. The Labour Party’s initial opposition was side-lined by its support for continued membership of the EC during the last British referendum on the subject in 1975. Although Europe proved to be a divisive topic during the party’s ‘wilderness years’ during the 1980’s, the party has consistently taken a positive and proactive role in the EU since 1992, especially during its 13 years in power; never, thus far, has it taken steps to offer a referendum on British membership of the EU.
The Conservatives have suffered from the reverse. Being the party to have taken Britain into the EC and supporting the ‘yes’ campaign in 1975 alongside the Labour government, the Party has become steadily more Eurosceptic – taken to almost hysterical levels since losing the 1997 election. Despite her (in)famous purse-slamming calls for her “money back”, Margaret Thatcher told an audience assembled in Bruges, Belgium in 1988 that “Britain does not dream of some cosy isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”.
John Major even steered the Conservative UK government through the maelstrom of the negotiations surrounding the Maastricht Treaty (establishing the EU). Major’s government was however, dogged by fierce internal dissent over Europe with his government suffering parliamentary defeat and being on the brink of resignation. Shortly before agreeing the Maastricht Treaty, Major famously said “they [Conservative Eurosceptics] think that we are going to lose the argument in Europe. That is defeatist and wrong. We learnt to swim in that sea long ago”.
Since then, Europe has become an even more toxic area for the party. The party’s increased parliamentary presence since the 2010 elections has been a new wave of Conservative MP’s (the so-called “Fresh Start” group) who have proven so aggressive they succeeded in joining Cameron’s Europe-policy array. Part of securing his 2005 Conservative leadership bid, Cameron was forced to promise to pull Conservative MEPs from the European Parliament’s large centre-right grouping and form a more hard-line rightist group (the current ECR group – which he did in 2009). It doesn’t stop there. Despite the “referendum lock”, a piece of legislation which triggers a national referendum in the UK should more powers be transferred to ‘Brussels’, Conservative back-benchers broke Cameron’s control over his party and led for him to call a referendum on membership. Even more unsettling is the fact that a great many Conservatives do not want a reformed EU (which forms part of Cameron’s EU ultimatum) but outright exit –including front-bench cabinet ministers. Only the lowly Ken Clark, minister without portfolio, continues to push a proactive European message in the Conservative party. With each new intake of Conservative MPs being more Eurosceptic, the chances of the Conservative Party being able to constructively engage in the European project dwindle to embers.
But, what do the people think? The Conservatives, who have remained behind in the polls since adopting an unpopular austerity policy, received a bounce in the polls following Cameron’s speech. By the 1st of February, this poll-lead had all but vanished. In the words of George Eaton in the NewStatesman, “while voters share the Tories’ [Conservative] Euroscepticism, they do not share their obsession with the subject”, with only 6% of the UK electorate viewing Europe as an important issue.
The final factor to be considered is the UK Press. A large and critical Press is, as we all know, the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. It is no secret that the vast majority of the Press in the UK is incredibly, even hysterically anti-European. Indeed with such high readership figures, it would be a tough secret to keep. From respectable broad sheets such as the Times or Telegraph to the tabloid press of the Daily Mail, Daily Express, and the Sun, the UK’s media landscape is littered with hostile, inaccurate or even out right false reports on Europe. World-renowned British publications such as the Guardian, the Economist or Financial Times can be critical of EU structures or legislation, but every national Press challenges the actions of their governments – indeed it is one of their core responsibilities. But, in the opinion of someone who grew up in the UK, the sheer weight of misrepresentative or farcical media-reporting on EU affairs only serves to create a Eurosceptic public, with no knowledge of the benefits of EU membership. Britain may well be an Island Nation, but the right-wing British media only serves to infect this geographical trait with a mentality. An Island Notion.
The EU has developed into an entity quite removed from the one established in 1951, as the goals of ‘Ever Closer Union’ between the peoples of Europe have been advanced. But despite the creation of a boarder-free zone, an “Area of Freedom, Security and Justice” and the euro, Britain has retained control of her destiny. In the past, both Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers have secured the Brits the opt-outs they hold so dearly. Furthermore, islanders across the Union have joined their continental cousins in European integration. Indeed the Scottish desire to remain in Europe should not be underestimated. The Welsh and Northern Irish, major beneficiaries from EU funding, should not be ignored when assessing Britain and the EU.
This is more than geography and more than the evolution of a “Common Market”. The Conservative Party and an anti-European media have succeeded in keeping the Brits deeply suspicious and detached from Europe. But we should not be fooled into thinking Britain is just an Island nation, because this is just an Island Notion.
Article By Thomas Fillis