Image: Kalyan Neelamraju
For two thirds of the lifetime of the European Union and its predecessors the United Kingdom has been its second or third largest member. For about the past 20 years English has been the main working language of the Commission and other EU institutions. An intelligent but uninformed outsider would probably assume that the UK stands at the heart of Europe, playing and taking pride in a leading role in shaping EU policies and activities. But what we find in reality is the country consistently behaving like a sulky, tantrum-prone child standing on the margins, screaming ‘I won’t play, and if you all go on playing without me I’ll spoil your game.’
How can this sorry state of affairs have come about, in a country that considers itself to be a master of the arts of diplomacy and of punching above its weight in world affairs? The question is no longer funny, as the UK is now almost inevitably heading towards an exit from the EU, even while a majority of the political class still seems to realize that this would be a harmful move. One cannot announce a national need for something as serious as a referendum on reversing a treaty entered into 40 years ago without implying that there really is a strong case for leaving. The case for remaining in membership immediately starts on the back foot in such a referendum, especially as so little has been done during those 40 years to make use of - and in particular to proclaim the use that has been made of - that membership.
There have been brief moments where it all seemed very different. At the very start of the UK’s membership of the then European Communities, in 1973, the Conservative government of Edward Heath was eager to play a full part and make up for the time lost through the country not having been a founding member. But that government was short lived, and the Labour one that followed - which insisted on having its own referendum on affirming membership just to quell internal party dissent - did nothing to follow up the Conservatives’ early enthusiasm. The next moment came - though neither her friends nor her enemies like to remember it - when Margaret Thatcher was persuaded by Lord Cockcroft to allow the country to play a leading part in the Single Market Programme. But she could not abide the logical next step of the Maastricht Treaty, to ensure that the intensification of markets was accompanied by balancing social policy measures. The Conservative Party lurched into a virulently anti-European stance, which John Major ‘s valiant struggle was unable to reverse. Matters improved again when Tony Blair was persuaded by Peter Mandelson to take the EU seriously. That endeavour lasted longer than the preceding two, and was broken only when Blair gave total support to the US invasion of Iraq. The UK again retreated to the sidelines of Europe, though the sulking and the tantrums did not begin again until the election of the Conservative and Liberal coalition.
For most of all the years in between these three moments the main stance of the majority of British politicians has been that the main purpose of remaining in the EU is to weaken the chances of it doing anything; perhaps to try from time to time to weaken the Franco-German alliance by rather clumsily and obviously attempting to club up with either one of them against the other. Almost never have our leaders said to us: ‘Here is a problem that we can best tackle by teaming up with our partners in the EU and solving together.’
The lowest moment was reached when David Cameron famously vetoed the use of the EU’s formal institutions for managing resolution of the Eurozone crisis. It could not impede the rescue effort taking place, but it achieved two utterly negative things. First, it signalled that the UK did not simply want to stand outside the Eurozone, but that it wanted to do all it could to make it hard for the Eurozone to address its problems - a position that is only compatible with a desire to destroy the single currency for all. Second (probably unthinkingly), by preventing use of the formal institutions the UK government came to the aid of the technocrats in the EU and in the leading banks who wanted to establish an ad hoc action coalition, bypassing the European Parliament and other institutions, and thereby removing all democratic means for tackling the crisis. This act will be long remembered by European democrats of all colours.
The Cameron veto was a boat-burning moment, and if he and some other Conservative and Liberal leaders insist now that they want the country to remain in membership it has to be seen in this context of seeking to maximize opportunities for wrecking the Union’s attempts to act. And yet the fact remains that Britain is a long-standing, highly important member state that need never to have put itself into such a position.
The central question to ask opponents of EU membership is: how would an important, middle-sized country geographically located in Europe set about being a force in the contemporary world, other than through being a powerful, leading member of the EU? They can give three answers to that question. The answers seem mutually contradictory, but in fact they work together in a powerful, negative way.
First is the view that Britain does not need to think in terms of its geographical position when contemplating its international role, because it is an imperial power with a strong presence in every part of the world. This was the historical view that guided British approaches to Europe from the Napoleonic period onwards, as Europe seemed increasingly unmanageable and threatening while the British Empire expanded. It strongly influenced Winston Churchill’s decision not to participate in the initial discussions of European integration in the 1950s, and was fully shared by most of the Conservative and Labour Parties until the 1960s. But now the Empire is long gone, save for a few small islands. More than a generation of politicians and diplomats have come and gone since the Empire was dissolved, and yet the imperial mentality still dominates official and media thinking: ‘It is all very well for little countries like Germany and France to busy themselves with a little place like Europe, but we play on a global stage and cannot be limited in that way.’
Scratch any British public figure of right or left deeply enough - apart from the committed pro-Europeans - and you will find that attitude still in place. It will rarely be spoken out loud, because of its absurdity. But it is partly able to retain its force because of the two other possible responses to my question, the first of which is that Britain does not need to think in terms of its geographical position, because it enjoys a special relationship with the US. This is strictly incompatible with the imperialist answer, the US having been the first colony to break away from the Empire, but the role that the UK plays in helping the US to advance its own policies enables Britons to feel that the old imperial role lives on in a new guise.
This is not as foolish as the imperialist nostalgia response by itself. The UK does provide important military and diplomatic support to the US in its various wars. And governments of both countries share a belief that they should support their banks by protecting the global financial system from European attempts at regulation. The fact that the US government has made it clear that it wants the UK to remain in the EU, as the best guarantor of American interests in Europe, shows that the British view of a special relationship is not mere fantasy, though it is not very flattering. The UK’s EU delegation is an important branch of the US Embassy in Brussels.
But is this what UK independence from the EU is all about, the right to avoid becoming a leading member of the European Union in order to be a junior partner to the United States, within which it can never have a formal role?
The final response to my central question from Eurosceptics is that Britain does not need a role in the world at all. Don’t trouble us with issues of globalization; don’t send us any immigrants; just leave us alone to get on with our lives. No-one in a serious political or governmental position can adopt or even encourage such a view, but it bobbles along under the surface of popular anti-European opinion in all parties, and in UKIP it is rather more prominent than that. It is of course quite incompatible with both imperialist and pro-US responses, but it does draw on the same well-springs of sentiment as the former: the British are a superior race; we once ruled much of the world; we need have no truck with inferior foreigners.
Most people sharing these feelings are frightened of globalization and want to hide from it. In the anti-EU movement they are cynically manipulated by those in the political and business worlds who want the opposite: complete exposure to an unregulated global economy and all the upheavals it brings to the lives of ordinary people. They oppose EU membership because it is a potential source of attempts to provide some regulation and security, but they make eager use of those who see it as the manifestation of a globalization from which they want to escape.
While each of these three responses is inconsistent with the other two, their common denominator is a sense of separation from and superiority over the rest of Europe, and a belief that the UK does not need to think of its geographical location. But neither together nor apart can they cope with the fact that the UK cannot throw its weight around the world by itself; it is an important but middle-sized power with a specific location and dependent on many webs of co-operation. Ironically, although the third response, that of isolationism, remains at the level of unarticulated popular sentiment, it could well be the one that most accurately describes the likely place of a UK outside the EU.
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