In the early morning of 9th December 2011, the patience of Britain’s European partners finally ran out. In return for his acquiescence in the drawing up of a new European treaty to save the Eurozone, Mr. Cameron demanded a number of special arrangements for the United Kingdom to ‘protect the City of London.’ Britain’s partners however were in no mood to be blackmailed. There was a brusque rejection of the British demands and it was decided that, with the single exception of the Czech Republic, Britain’s partners would agree between themselves a separate treaty enshrining the measures they thought appropriate to protect the Eurozone. Many observers understandably regard this episode as an important step towards Britain’s eventual (and perhaps not so eventual) departure from the European Union altogether.
Mr. Cameron’s alienation of all his European partners is the culmination of two decades of political controversy in this country concerning the European Union. Over that time, a strange experiment has been carried out in the United Kingdom. There has been a futile attempt to combine formal British membership of the European Union with detachment from its main policies such as the single currency and passport-free travel. On the one hand, there has been a grudging acceptance by the British political classes of the rational need for Britain to be part of the Union, but on the other this acceptance has been increasingly offset by ever deeper public and political hostility to the Union’s specific policies and institutions. This is demonstrably an unsustainable equilibrium. Britain is teetering on the brink of resolving its incoherent European policies in favour of at best long-term semi-detachment, perhaps complete separation from the European Union.
Twenty years of anti-European propaganda in the British mass media, silence by British pro-European forces and the crisis of the Eurozone have interacted with the attitudes of the most Eurosceptic British government in a generation to create something very like a new anti-European consensus in this country. This consensus takes it for granted that Britain will not be in any foreseeable future a full member of the European Union. The current British debate simply revolves rather around the extent of British withdrawal from the European Union, whether this withdrawal should be complete or merely partial.
This consensus for detachment is buttressed by a Eurosceptic mythology that is becoming every day more powerful in the British political debate, a mythology founded on implausible but enthusiastically advocated claims about the imminent demise of the single European currency and the systematic reversal of the extraordinary achievements of European integration since the Treaty of Rome. There is a long tradition in the United Kingdom of underestimating the seriousness of the commitment of our continental neighbours to the process of European integration. There are remarkable echoes in today’s European debate of the scepticism with which the British ruling classes greeted the aspirations of the Messina Conference and the Treaty of Rome. It is as if the intervening years, with all the progress made towards European unification despite British obstructionism, had never taken place.
A favoured complaint of Eurosceptics is that European integration is proceeding undemocratically, with insufficient consultation of national voters. What is usually meant is that democratically elected governments in Europe do not always allow themselves to be browbeaten by sectional or demagogic currents of opinion to pursue the irrationality of short-term nationalistic policies. The European Union is very definitely a product of representative democracy. It is indeed a powerful demonstration of the superiority of representative government to the dangerous irrationality of demagoguery.
Ironically, the fears of the Eurosceptic media may turn out to be correct, although certainly not in the way they think. There is a real danger that, without proper public discussion or consultation, Britain’s position within the European Union is being increasingly eroded by the attitudes and policies of the majority party in the governing coalition, a decision accepted without protest, or even awareness, by the minority party in the coalition. Pressure is growing within the Conservative Party for a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s position within the Union. Nearly a half of the current Conservative Members of Parliament are associated with the illuminatingly named group “Fresh Start.” Its demands for a reworking of the terms of British membership in the European Union are likely to figure prominently in the Conservative manifesto for the next election.
A referendum on British membership of the Union is now entirely possible within the next five years, particularly if there is a Conservative government after 2015. The current belief of those who regard themselves as pro-Europeans in this country that such a referendum would definitely be won by those favouring British membership of the Union smacks of the complacency pro-European forces from all parts of the British political spectrum have shown for much too long. If the Union’s friends in this country want to win a referendum on British membership in five years time, the time to start preparing is now. British public opinion was not always as hostile to the European Union as it is now. The complacency and ineffectiveness of pro-European forces in this country over the past twenty years have largely contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves today. Another five years of such complacency and unwillingness to rock the political boat from the British pro-Europeans may well ensure an outcome in the eventual referendum which will take Britain entirely out of the European Union.