Since last week, a sizeable number of commentators have been arguing that UKIP’s surge just made Britain a more European place. The reasoning? Farage and Co are part of a phenomenon that exists EU-wide, apparently. You can almost hear the thought-process of the euro-enthusiasts writing this stuff. What better way to discredit the anti-EU party than by tarring it as ‘European’?
And, by the way, what worse way to persuade Britons to engage in your beloved EU than by reinforcing the idea that it is the source of all anti-politics? Must we, most British readers will have wondered, must we really develop a virulent strain of populism to become proper Europeans? It was grist to the mill for those fed up with European affairs.
But, it does point to an interesting phenomenon: the British have always reacted strangely to the suggestion that other countries have the same difficulties with the EU as we do. Instead of viewing this as the basis for a common effort to overhaul a rotten system, we see it as proof of the two-facedness of foreigners.
Germany is perceived as the most devious in this regard. During the recent debate about workers coming to the UK from southeastern Europe, for instance, it was revealed that Germany had been imposing restrictions of its own. We responded with open-jawed indignation – Germans are supposed to be good Europeans.
Why do we react to the evidence that other countries find EU cooperation as difficult as we do with cries of hypocrisy? The answer is simple really. Because other EU governments actually have been behaving like hypocrites. The thing is, though, they have only been able to do so with British help.
For years, we got away with blocking Commission proposals and vetoing EU initiatives because we made sure we were doing so on behalf of other governments too. In other words, we were willing scapegoats, allowing other governments to burnish their pro-European credentials at our expense.
It was a straightforward marriage of convenience. Yet, that has changed. Increasingly, we have become unwilling scapegoats in the EU. These days, with the European Commission marginalised, all governments are expected to act constructively. There’s not much room for a blocker.
Yet, there is still an appetite for the UK to find a way of broaching the difficult issues. Poland, for example, ranks as pro-European but inevitably struggles with the leaps of integration being made in the eurozone. In these and other matters, it looks to the UK for a degree of understanding and even partnership. It seldom receives it.
Too often when the British are in town, it is to point fingers. Visitors hint that they are looking forward to seeing how Poland’s government reacts when the Commission starts interfering in its budgetary policies or when voters finally have a say on the Euro. The subtext is that local politicians are cheating their electorate, and it is hardly very helpful.
With a unilateral opt-out for key areas, and the clout to block when we have to, the British have it good. Yet, this antagonises the others and leaves our allies high and dry. There are better ways to influence happenings. Last month, we took the EU’s proposed Tobin Tax to court to block it, instead of simply exploiting the disarray amongst its 11 proponents, not to mention the other member states.
It means that when we do actually broach the subject of EU reform, it is almost entirely without effect. As our recent report highlights, the reaction in Warsaw to David Cameron’s reformist January speech was, for instance, one of latent hostility, but not because the Poles disagreed with him – just the opposite. They support the Prime Minister when he calls for the eurozone’s decision-making to become more open to non-members.
The trouble is that, in their recent activities, the British have done more than anyone to close the eurozone off. The Prime Minister’s 2011 summit veto led to the 17 eurozone members creating a parallel institutional architecture that potentially excludes non-members. By in January tying the EU and eurozone reform agenda to the threat of British exit and raising the question of a looser new UK status, David Cameron has set back the cause by years and undermined other non-euro-members.
So no, we haven’t become more European simply by developing a carbuncle like UKIP. Rather, we have collectively become the EU’s protest party, screaming uselessly from the sidelines and adding to the gridlock and rot that we find so abhorrent.