The UK and Europe: Ever-weaker Ties as the UK moves close to the Exit

The UK has long had a semi-detached approach to much of European Union politics and policies – Europe begins across the channel for most people and politicians. And the British opt-outs from the euro and from the Schengen border-free zone are hardly going to be overturned at these times of euro crisis, of debates and scares about immigration, and of austerity at home in the UK too.

But whether planned or not, the UK’s ties to the EU have weakened substantially over the last ten to fifteen years, and there is little sign that either the current government, or even a Labour government if it came into power, will do much to change that.

Is the European Debate Over in the UK? Myths, Ignorance and Political Design

Since the UK joined the EU almost 40 years ago, there have been many moments of argument and debate both at home and with our European partners. But the UK has changed over the decades, and so has the rest of the EU, in ways that now make Britain’s position in Europe more negative, more marginal, closer to exit than it has ever been.

It is ironic in some ways, that it is in the last 15 years that this detachment has become the strongest. In 1997, Tony Blair and New Labour swept to power with a huge mandate for change, and a public tired of the Conservatives infighting and obsessions over Europe. But New Labour policies were substantially to the right not only of most European Social Democratic parties but also to those of most Christian Democrat parties too – New Labour was wearing the Thatcher mantle, albeit with nicer, gentler policies towards investing in health and education. But free markets were embraced, along with wealth, and a shocking tolerance of inequality. It was not only because of the folly of the Iraq war, that Blair was closer to the right wing duo of Aznar in Spain and Berlusconi in Italy.

Brussels and the EU greeted Blair and New Labour with relief after the tantrums of the Major years (including the blocking of all Council business in 1996 when the rest of the EU fairly enough put up import controls against British beef when ‘mad cow’ disease was found across the UK). But Blair and his allies knew that the British press was still predominantly eurosceptic. They knew the British public didn’t understand the EU very well, nor like it very much – though they still wanted to be in the EU. And the easiest – but utterly short-termist – political choice was to not talk about Europe very much. And when New Labour did talk about Europe it was mostly in terms of delivery – of trade, of free markets and of blocking any new social legislation in Europe – not of European democracy, or the fact that the EU is and was a political project too.

Instead of grasping the opportunity of changing the whole tone, understanding and approach to Europe in the UK, Blair mostly swept it under the carpet. It stopped – apparently – being toxic while Labour was in power.

But as soon as Cameron became Prime Minister two  years ago, Europe burst back onto the UK scene, the many eurosceptic Tory backbenchers delighted to be back in power, and their toxic, anti-EU views undented by the years in opposition – the media still mostly eurosceptic, the British public still mostly profoundly ignorant on EU affairs. These backbenchers will do their utmost to force a referendum on the EU, and love to propound the peculiar view that being in the position of Norway or Switzerland would put the UK in a more rather than less powerful position vis-à-vis the EU and the Single Market.

As the EU has integrated more in the last twenty years, the UK has not only taken opt-out after opt-out but politicians of all shades have underscored the myth that the EU is only a trade bloc, while also promoting a related myth of the UK as still a major, independent player in the world. And as the EU has been downgraded in British politics, the spotlight has gone elsewhere – the highest fliers in the FCO do not specialise in EU affairs as they might have a decade before, foreign editors focus on the  multipolar world not Europe, new thinktanks focus on domestic affairs or climate change not the EU.

Would a Labour Government bring the UK back to the heart of Europe?

Some may say that surely it will just take a change of government – Ed Miliband in power will surely bring the UK back towards the centre of Europe? But even today, in opposition, Labour is if anything a drag on developments in Europe. As a vital new debate takes hold, propelled not least by Francois Hollande’s election campaign, focusing on growth and jobs not austerity, the UK Labour opposition remain on the free market end of these debates, scared of talking much about stronger market and corporate regulation or of supporting a strong EU financial transactions tax or of backing an EU New Deal for jobs and green growth. Nor is Labour under Ed Miliband likely to embrace, or explain to the UK public, the fact that the EU is a political body not just a trade bloc.

And, if all these UK developments were not enough, they are compounded by all the developments in the EU – from the integrationist elements of the Nice and Lisbon treaties, to the desperate and misguided attempts to solve the euro crisis which are nonetheless also driving more integration for now. None of those outside the eurozone – such as  Sweden, Denmark, Poland – face the combination of political antipathy, media myths, public ignorance and detachment, that the UK does.

The UK has made itself the most marginalised member state in the EU, the nearest to the exit door, clutching the largest number of opt-outs, with its overarching myth – of the EU as only sensible if it is only a trade bloc – still intact. There is nothing to suggest this will change for the better in the years ahead – inside or outside of the EU, the UK is not going to be a major or a constructive or a central player in the EU in the foreseeable future.

This column is part of the ‘Britain in Europe’ debate jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London and Social Europe Journal.

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  • Mel

    I now live in the US but continue to be interested in UK affairs. I am shocked to realize that the UK is (has) given up it’s sovereignty to Europe. I don’t understand why the British people aen’t up-in-arms about this. The UK would be much better off out of ‘Europe’ and working more closely with the British commonwealth and the USA.

    • George

      @Mel:
      If the UK has conceded its sovereignty to anyone, it’s the USA, not Europe!!

  • George

    Kirsty:
    Ignore the trolls and Blairites! This is an excellent piece which I hope is widely read. I fear you’re right about the UK’s growing marginalisation–even under a future Labour Govermant, afraid even to back Hollade’s (mild) anti-austerity stance!!

  • tommi knottinen

    I am sure millions upon millions of Europeans, like myself, long for the moment the UK or at least England leads by determined example and breaks away from the Political-Economic-Judicial stranglehold tyranny of centralising, aggrandising EU-Brussels.It will just take one Nation to turns its back and tell anti-Democratic Brussels where to go with its infamously straitjacket answer to every issue no matter how large or small, that of ‘one-size-fits-all’, and there is every chance this catastrophic experiment abandoning Peoples’ Rights and Responsibilities at National level to a supra-national monolith will start to crumble into the dustbowl of History. All it needs is for the UK/England to to demonstrate the World will not implode, the lights will not go out all over EUrope, and most certainly the National interest will not lead to conflict with neighbours. England, the Citizens of EUrope look to you as they have so often in previous centuries to hold up and be the bearer of Free Will for all and the Individual’s Rights in an Elected Democracy – - only England still has that unique authority and ability – - only England is left with the Political muscle of all the EUropean Nations with the opportunity to throw off the yoke of an un-democratic institution that cares nothing for the Person and everything for big-Business & big-Government. Don’t let EUrope down, speak for the People, rescue us from an Unrepresentative, Unaccountable, Unresponsive tyranny no better at its core than the Soviet Union at the height of its alleged ‘democratic’ rule on behalf of multi-millions of Citizens.

  • James, London

    The old chestnut about the British needing to be educated into liking the EU.
    You do raise the interesting point about the EU being more than a trading block, that it is a political venture. You are right in stating that Blair and Cameron didn’t and dont want to put any emphasis on the political nature of the project. The reason they are keen on keeping it quiet is because the British people don’t want to part of an ever and ever closer union. Any way I think we are out of the limelight at the moment, the Greeks are not flavour of the month. Ironically the very reason for the creation of the EU, keeping nationalism at bay, is being added by current EU policy vis a vis Golden Dawn.

  • JorgeG

    Excellent article. I have been saying the same thing for a long time in every blog (as a commentator of course not that I am anywhere important enough to be asked to write an article).

    I personally have absolutely nothing against those Englanders, Little or Grand, who wish to leave the EU. Nothing at all. What I really cannot stand is the post-imperial arrogance that you see in every British politician when it comes to EU matters. British politicians never stop pontificating about the single market and how they want to expand it, deepen it, glorify it, and how much they love it.

    Well let me tell you something you stone cold ignorants: the single market, just like the EU, is not a mere free trading area, the single market is not complete for those countries that have rejected Schengen (errr. me thinks there is only one, in turn forcing Ireland to follow suit). The single market includes Schengen, because the single market comprises true and non-policed freedom of movement for four entities: Goods, capital, labour AND PEOPLE. Which means that the single market is meant to allow non-policed freedom of movement of people inside it, whoever this person is, whether it is an EU national, or a non-EU national, and the latter, whether it is an EU resident or someone who has arrived in the EU with an EU-Schengen visa.

    So the free market fundamentalists that populate the upper, middle and lower echelons of the British political establishment should shed the post-imperial arrogance which stops them from thinking and realise that they have no idea what the EU single market is, for the simple reason that the UK is not truly part of it, having rejected Shengen, a key pillar of that single market.

    • tommi knottinen

      Fascinating! All that bilious, self-righteousness from I presume a Spanish Citizen content with his lot? Unsure quite why JorgeG should be so virulently rude, but of course it is one way of deflecting from serious argument: I.e. “little”, “grand” “Englanders”, “stone cold ignorants”, “(“post”) “imperial arrogance”. My, my I’m sure the 1 in 4 unemployed fellow countrymen and banking sector on the verge of a massive bail-out request will be comforted that there is a Spaniard who find the EU’s current ‘stability’ pact simply a marvellous exhibition of unity. From my Northern Europe perspective it would seem to me it is the United Kingdom that has pressed for a proper Single Union of ‘free market’ post-Maastricht and that it is others, e.g. France, Spain, BeNeLux, Finland etc. have resisted its full implementation. Now, to return to the very first point by our Spanish friend: Perhaps a reason you should consider for why you have not been invited to write an article is that calling other EUropean Union Citizens unpleasant, stereotypical names reveals you are not quite ready to launch your views on an expectant Continent – - only a suggestion.