Britain: The Black Sheep of the European Union

26 years after the another one on its way?

, by Anonymous

Britain: The Black Sheep of the European Union

The political deadlock that the European Union is currently facing makes it all the more depressing for pro Europeans in the UK. The ratification process has been halted, politicians no longer believe in the European Constitution, the Euro has almost been forgotten, and while pro Europeans waste time wondering where to go next, the Eurosceptics gather support.

A ’no go’ area

The fight for the European cause is losing momentum as the major promoters of the EU are gradually sinking. Britain in Europe, set up by Labour in the mid 90s to win a possible Euro referendum was dismantled last year as the campaign was put to a side by the Government; the European Movement is facing a financial crisis; and the major political parties lack any strength and courage to take on the issues.

Europe has now become a ‘no go area’ for the mainstream political parties. Labour completely left Europe out of its election campaign in 2005. It would have been far too risky to tackle the issues with the British people, and as usual, Blair preferred to fudge his way along rather than encourage a wide and open debate. The man who in 1997 stated he would put Britain at the heart of Europe making it a key player in the Union, can now look back at the many chances he has missed to make that happen.

Blair’s regrets

Tony Blair’s Government has seen some important achievements in the past ten years; notably the successful results of Northern Ireland and devolution. It will come as a major regret to him to have missed the possibility to join the Euro which was one of his main aspirations, but more importantly, the opportunities to have improved relations between Britain and the EU. These opportunities were never taken, despite the apparent pro European Government. It was the ‘War on Terror’ which was to become Blair’s priority and which would take precedence over all other European or international affairs.

But with the Labour reign gradually coming to an end and the Conservatives making a come back, it will be difficult to envisage any radical improvements in UK - EU relations in the coming years. It is even more difficult to envisage the Single currency debate coming back to life after it was doomed by Gordon Brown’s economic tests. If the ‘most pro European British Prime Minister’ fails to take the country into the Single Currency, I struggle to see who else could have the courage to do so; bearing in mind that both Labour and Conservative candidates for the next general elections are convinced Eurosceptics.

But the single currency was not the only missed opportunity for Britain. The UK’s involvement with the Convention which resulted in the Constitutional Treaty was scarce, and Blair’s Government completely bypassed the debate on the proposed Treaty - before and after the French and Dutch rejections. Reason? Well clearly, Britain was waiting for another EU country to reject the Treaty, so that if Britain too voted No it would not have to hold a referendum. It was a clever move for Blair, as it meant ignoring an incredibly controversial issue; which in his interest was best left out.

The result of course, is that the British public were never really aware of the issues surrounding the Constitution and were fed with the usual unfounded lies of the sceptics and the press. Who was defending the Constitution? With the exception of some powerless NGOs, there was no political party or organisation that would publicly face and loudly defend the Treaty. “The Sun” was particularly effective at creating confusion with its threatening titles: “Queen will be elbowed aside by Europe’s President”, “You will pay for Europe’s Pensions - Treaty to raid our £600 billion pot”. [1]

The Pride of a Nation

It is immensely difficult for pro European organisations to break through this thick layer of negativity, especially if the Government and the mainstream political parties lack any courage to be bold and clear on where they stand and face the sceptic public opinion. With no public funds available to them, pro European NGOs are hardly effective and cannot stand a chance to influence the public or the major political parties.

But the ‘British problem’ goes well beyond the hostile media or the lack of leadership or boldness of the political actors. The key element here is Pride, in its purest sense. It is in fact difficult to find many countries in Europe that can match the same level of National pride. Britain’s history has of course paved the way for a proud and Nationalist society. Britain is, and for centuries has been one of the leading world powers. It is the European country which has been at war more times than any other; with a proud and renowned army. It has one of the most progressive economies in the world, with a strong and stable currency. Its Institutions and monarchy are possibly the best representation of democratic stability and order. Unlike most countries in Europe, Britain has never been subdued to invasion, nor has it witnessed the oppression of Fascist regimes. It is therefore of no great surprise that the British society is so immensely proud of its history and that it wishes to keep full control of its National sovereignty.

The British burden

Of course, the Empire days are long over, but the loyalty that the British feel towards their Nation State is remarkably strong and there are no obvious signs that this loyalty should fade in the near future. While many European peoples have to a certain point extended their loyalties to the European Institutions and accepted that a United Europe is the way forward, many Brits see the European Institutions as a threat to all the years of history and culture that have built up the Nation and a threat to the supreme sovereignty of the State which should never be controlled by outside bodies.

For the majority of Brits who on the other hand welcome European Integration, it is simply a case of accepting that economically speaking the UK is better off in Europe, and that they can to a certain extent participate in some aspects of political integration with the condition that the Member State holds the final word and is not subject to majority decisions. In other words, if Britain can maintain control - as it presently is the case - of its National sovereignty, then European Integration can be beneficial and does not jeopardize the sovereignty of the Nation State. And it’s exactly this type of Europe that the vast majority of pro European organisations in the UK have been campaigning for.

Since the UK has joined the EU in 1973 it has been promoting an economic, liberal, flexible European Union of Nation States. For many Supranationalists and Federalists, the UK is a real obstacle to the project of political unification, as they are aware that the UK would be decisively against any future creation of a European Federation or Super state or any decision that would put at risk their National sovereignty or Institutions. Even passionate pro European Tony Blair condemned any move to politically unify Europe. “I will have no truck with a European super state. If there are moves to create that dragon, I will slay it”.

So the question is: If Europe’s destiny is total political unification, can the EU progress towards this ambition with the presence of the United Kingdom? Taking into account the conclusions drawn above, the answer is obvious. I would not try to suggest that the UK would be the only State to oppose such a development, but it certainly is the State which would have the strongest voice against it, and would have more reasons than any other to oppose it. Denmark, Sweden and Ireland are among those States which for similar reasons to Britain would oppose total political unification. However, it is the UK which promotes Intergovernmentalism and defends National Sovereignty in the Union with the most powerful voice, and with its important balance of power in the decision making process, these other smaller States tend to act as allies. We can be sure, that if Britain was not part of the Union, these States would be missing that indispensable intergovernmentalist driving force that they currently back.

All or nothing

So what does all this mean for the future of Europe and Britain? The political battle for Europe to have a Constitution has already been won, and according to Eurobarometer figures, the majority of citizens also believe that Europe should have its own Constitution. Despite the failure of ratification in two Member States, the reforms prescribed by the text will in one way or another enter into force as we all agree that the EU cannot function efficiently under the current Nice framework. A political European Constitution will, in my view be reached by the end of the decade. But even after the ratification of the Constitution, it is likely that many States will wish to advance further in political Integration in other fields, and it will be at this point that Britain will be forced to decide its future.

The UK will be forced to come to terms with the fact that many Member Stated will wish to integrate further and not maintain the flexible and loose framework which is currently in place. A real debate will have to take the scenes in Britain - a debate which has never been seen before, that would involve citizens, political actors, NGOs, social actors etc. to decide where Britain’s destiny truly lies. It is of course tremendously risky - but necessary; for Britain and for the EU.

A referendum on British Membership of the EU is the only answer to put an end to the current erosion of relationships between the island and the Union.

A referendum on British Membership of the EU is the only answer to put an end to the current erosion of relationships between the island and the Union. The UK should put all of its cards on the table: membership, the Euro, and the Constitution/political Integration. Either Britain becomes a full member of the European Union - with a single currency and with the ambitious desire to participate in political integration - or it leaves the Union. A negative result in a referendum would inevitably be a catastrophe for Britain, which would find itself in complete political isolation and economically worse off. It would of course be a victory for those who for years have been campaigning for British withdrawal; but those Brits who do support some form or another of British membership of the EU, and who believe that withdrawal would be highly irresponsible should now find the confidence to put these issues to a vote. It will be at this point that the British people will be faced to deal with the facts and decide the future of their beloved State. Can Britain put its pride aside and go beyond the point of no return?

A Federal Vanguard?

Romano Prodi recently stated that while there are countries such as the UK in the EU, it will be difficult for Member States to Integrate further, unless a core Europe - of Member States who wish to advance further in specific fields - can be formed. In other words, a Federation within an outer Confederation. Would this be an alternative option for Britain and similar sceptic States? According to those against this idea, a Vanguard would give rise to a multi-speed Europe and is seen as divisive. This is despite the fact that a multi speed Europe is exactly the kind of Europe that we have today. The fact that some States participate in EMU and others have opted out, is a clear sign of a multi speed Europe. Clauses and parts of Treaties which apply to some States but not to others, such as the Freedom, Security and Justice opt out of Denmark, prove that the EU is already a Union of personalised rules and laws which can apply to some States but not to others.

Total integration or total isolation?

A Federal Vanguard or Core Europe may effectively be the only alternative to certain Member States leaving the Union. Britain could for example enjoy being a comfortable spectator, while those countries who wish to push ahead on certain fields of political Integration would do so, leaving Britain and certain others behind as ‘ordinary’ members of the Union. Whether this will become a concrete option in the future is still to be seen, but what is certain - is that no matter what happens in the future - sooner or later Britain will have to wake up and smell the coffee and decide where it stands.

A referendum on membership or possibly on the kind of membership - if the vanguard becomes a reality - will be inevitable within the next five to ten years. It will be the opportunity for those political parties and political actors and organisations with common sense and responsibility to finally face the stage and passionately persuade the British people that their place is in Europe. If this fails to happen, and the sceptics have their way, it would be the most radical and revolutionary decision that the country would ever make. It would be the beginning of an unknown destiny and a risky path to isolation; a decision that no serious British citizen would ever want to take.

For further reading:

*Britain and Europe: Yet Another Moment of Truth by Lord Haskins, September 2003, Essay Number 27; source: The Federal Trust

*Relegated to the Second Division? Why Associate Membership of the EU would be bad for Britain by Diana Wallis MEP; source: European Movement UK


[1What the EU Constitutional Treaty really means for Britain; Britain in Europe Campaign Ltd.

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom