The success of Britain in toning down the ambitions of the European institutions, shifting the balance away from the supranational executive towards the intergovernmental method, the muzzling of a voice in world affairs that is independent of Washington, the dragooning of Europe to the cause of unfettered globalisation and ‘light touch regulation’, the internal market, the pursuit of an enlargement agenda beyond almost any geographic limits, the dominance of the English language, the roadblocks placed in the path of anything which could remotely be considered as federalist, the red lines and the opt outs could have been presented as a national success story – a tale of insidious triumph for the abiding interests of Britain. They are certainly seen as such from continental chancelleries. Some European observers consider that the Blair government, viewed in the UK as unconditionally pro-European, did more harm to the cause of ‘political Europe’ than the Thatcher years. But all this counts for nothing in the climate of sustained hostility, bordering on the irrational, which characterises public attitudes to Europe.
The Eurosceptic beast is insatiable. The press so pro-European in the 1975 referendum is now in its vast majority not merely hostile to the European Union; it conducts a 24/7 campaign of rapid Europhobia. Even the BBC has been cowed into at best minimising coverage of EU questions, unless they can be presented in the most simplistic ‘us and them’ terms.
The Conservative party, scared witless by the emergence of UKIP as a national force fishing in the same saloon bar waters, has been enlisted to the cause; if an ambitious young Tory wants to be picked to fight a winnable seat, anything less than calling for the outright withdrawal from the Union will be interpreted as fellow-travelling with federalists. Labour and the Liberal Democrats avoid the whole question of Europe where possible; some succumb to the eurosceptic temptation; others recant past support for Britain’s participation in the euro.
As the coalition enters choppy waters, as the Tories begin to realise that they might fail again to win a majority, who would bet against Cameron in 2015 promising an ‘in/out’ referendum to shore up his standing with the Tory right and dishing UKIP in the process? And who could guarantee that the other parties would resist? And who could guarantee that even a clear rejection of British withdrawal in a referendum in say 2016 or 2017 would settle the issue, and that we could then constructively engage with our partners in the EU, that we would at last be at ‘the heart of Europe’? The soap opera of Britain’s tortuous relations with the EU which has run so doggedly for fifty years shows no sign of being axed.
And now what appeared to be the settled position of the British people, ‘making the best of a bad job’ – one of grumpy acceptance of British membership without illusion and without enthusiasm – can no longer be taken for granted.
The principal cause for the sudden collapse in support for membership of the EU cannot just be attributed to press hostility and political pusillanimity. Until 2008/2009, public opinion was deeply critical of the EU; but a majority was regularly recorded for staying in. The trigger for the turn-around has been the economic crisis and the mediocrity of its management by Europe’s decision-makers.
Support has collapsed due to the fumbling and tardy measures taken by Europe to save the currency, to shore up the finances of member states, to keep the banks afloat, and the absence of action to combat cataclysmic levels of unemployment, with the prospect of a decade of depression and decline. What people believe is that Brussels, at the behest of the IMF, has created an Austerity Union, squeezing any potential for growth out of the system, organising ‘internal devaluation’ which is economists-speak for cuts in purchasing power and public services, and making Keynesian economic theory unconstitutional. What people have not seen is any sign of solidarity between member states to help the weakest through aid for long term social and infrastructure investment. What people have not seen is any indication of a serious fight back by Europe against the tyranny of the financial markets, or a robust defence of Europe’s trade interests and its social welfare model.
This lowest common denominator approach to European construction, the blame game between national capitals and Brussels, the failure to present a cogent vision of a Europe being on the side of people has triggered a wave of support for nationalist, populist and xenophobic forces which is a far greater threat to the long term prospects for the Union than the continuing morosity of its traditionally difficult offshore member. Europe’s miserable performance in this crisis is feeding euroscepticism throughout, including Britain.
Turning British public opinion around requires the remaining pro-Europeans to find their voice, to organise a systematic challenge to the daily peddling of misinformation, myths and downright lies, and for some pro-European parties and politicians to sum up a little political courage.
But above all, turning around public opinion in Britain and in Europe requires Europe and its institutions to change tack, to balance responsible finances with a growth strategy and with the resources to match, and to raise their game.