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.