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UK's Relationship Issues with the European Union

Electoral pressure, not conviction, is behind the UK PM’s promise of EU referendum

Published: Feb 18, 2013 06:20:53 AM IST
Updated: Feb 13, 2013 03:26:36 PM IST
UK's Relationship Issues with the European Union
Image: Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Forty years after joining the European Union [the UK joined the trade bloc in 1973], British Prime Minister David Cameron said on January 23 that the British wanted a few things changed. Or they’ll leave. Maybe.

Most commentators chalked the speech up to electioneering—election cycles in the Western democracies usually include conservative party tirades against foreigners who persist in their foreignness. American candidates scold the Russians, the Germans scold the Greeks, the French scold the British, and the British scold Europe.

But Cameron’s speech went beyond that ritual. On the whole, the Tory leader sounded less like a populist politician than a long-suffering business partner—not quite happy with business as usual but not ready to liquidate either. Do you think you could try to get to the office a little earlier? Do we really need that receptionist? What’s this charge for?

“Clearly and quite passionately, he favours UK membership,” says Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury and an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London foreign affairs think tank.

But Cameron has to manage his party, he adds, and the members want a range of different things: Some would withdraw tomorrow and try to turn the UK into a sort of Singapore West. Others want an EU-lite—just trade please, hold the regs [regulations].

Britons are not alone in their annoyance. French dairy farmers, Spanish fishermen, and many others don’t have much use for Brussels either. However, English EU opponents tend to have more venom. Today, says Whitman, “it’s impossible to be selected as a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party if you have anything but Euro-sceptical views”.

Cameron’s promise of a referendum on membership in two-and-a-half years is acting on an old sentiment. The UK has always been a ‘reluctant European’, says Iain Begg, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “For the UK, the economic dimension of EU membership has nearly always been more prominent than the political goals that were paramount for the post-War leaders of France and Germany, who saw peace as the core objective,” adds Begg.

Linda Colley, a professor of British history at Princeton University, thinks the attitude goes back to Britain’s unique experience in World War II. Post-Nazi continental Europe “could feel enthusiastic about the European Union as a new start, something that was going to rescue them from deep despair and defeat and occupation”, Colley says. But Britain hadn’t been invaded and, in fact, the British felt they had sort of rescued the other countries.

As a result, “They didn’t have the same feeling of commitment and gratitude toward the EU project.”

UK's Relationship Issues with the European Union
Britain’s experience since the War has also tended to enforce a greater sense of separation, in Colley’s view. At the beginning of the 20th century, the British royal family was related to most of Europe’s other royal families. Now, they are more or less unique. Also, Colley says, the British elite used to speak many more languages—Lord Palmerston, a 19th century prime minister, spoke five—and that familiarity tended to bring them closer to the Continent than they have been since the war.

Another legacy has endured, however, and that may be adding to its current discomforts: Britain’s sense of itself, which retains a whiff of the imperial.

“You can hear it in the political language,” Colley says. “Whether you oppose the European Union or support it, British politicians will say that we need to be ‘at the heart of Europe, that we need to lead Europe’,” Colley says. “In both cases, it’s a slightly over-inflated view still of the possibilities of what Britain can now do in the world. It’s a competent, second-ranking power and the future will only make it more difficult to remain that way. It’s hard for someone to adapt to that.”

Whitman says how the Cameron proposal plays out is uncertain, because referendums are always uncertain. However, he adds, whoever is running the government in two years will find it difficult not to honour Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum.
If the UK did decide to quit the Union, Whitman is unsure what significance that would actually have. On such big issues as the single currency and the Shengen area visa agreements, Europe has already gone its own way, he notes. “It’s really difficult to see areas that the UK could opt out from that it hasn’t already opted out from,” he adds.

But two—make that 27—can play at the referendum game: Europe could decide to quit the UK before the UK decides to quit Europe. “One also shouldn’t rule out the possibility that Europe might leave,” Whitman says. “The European Union has been leaving the UK for quite some time.”

(Bennett Voyles is a freelance writer and journalist. He lives in Paris)

(This story appears in the 22 February, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Paolo Zeriali - London

    The destiny of Britain is the ocean, not the firmland. England has become great navigating around the world. Staying in the EU, it would finally be downgraded to the role of a region of the \"empire\". EU doesn\'t work and it will fail, regardless of the outcome of this referendum. Probably Brexit will not succeed, because the establishment is scaring Britons everyday. But EU is however doomed and it will fail. Europe is not the navel of the world anymore. It was a century ago, now it\'s a huge care home, whose economy is supported by millions of migrants lured in the Old Continent by its positive image. But behind the marketing, the reality of Europe is much less \"shining\".

    on Apr 23, 2016
  • Joe Thorpe

    The European project is a suffocating socialist engineering project, a mild or not so mild form of communism of taking from those that have & dolling it out willy nilly to to people that cant spend our money on their projects fast enough. They regulate every aspect of our lives from the air that we breath to what we flush down the toilet. They drive big cars & fly around in private planes while getting us to use busses & taxing us out of the air. We dont have an inflated opinion of ourselves we know life has moved on & if Europe wants to be a single country with one flag then so be it but it can do so without us hanging on to their shirt tails. New Zealand lost everything when we deserted them for the EU now they are a thriving nation when we escape the clutches of the EU we might have a few lean years ahead but we will make a path for ourselves, we will control our own borders once again & when we have foreign terrorists in the country we wont have anyone stopping us from deporting them.

    on Feb 18, 2013
  • Bill

    What a snide article with an irrelevant source. If the British choose to leave the EU it will do so. However simple truth is that the Brits have a point - Europe is being dragged to the back by over regulation and Asia is playing a different game. If you truly believe the old nonsense that the Brits are trying to relive past glories and cannot get over the Empire then you'™re a know-nothing relying on tired rhetoric to make your non-point.

    on Feb 18, 2013