Cracks in the Ice?

UK’s attitude toward the EU

, by Jeremy Hargreaves

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Cracks in the Ice?

Next year it will be twenty years since Margaret Thatcher made her famous ’Bruges speech’. That event definitively marked the shift of first herself and then very soon afterwards the British public, away from being friendly to the European Community – in the wake of the 1975 referendum in which she played a leading part in the yes campaign – to the hostility to anything emerging from Brussels, to which we have become so used ever since.

And the following year it will be twenty years since the Berlin wall came down and the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe began their slow march towards membership of the EU which finally ended for most of them with accession in 2004 or at the start of this year.

Those two events have been the cornerstones of both the development of the EU, and Britain’s response to it, over those last twenty years.

British perception of the EU

Ever since the late 1980s there has been a general perception, strongly reinforced by the ambitions for the EU of the President of the European Commission 1985-1995, Jacques Delors, that the European Union is gathering ever more powers unto itself, in promotion of an ’ever closer union’ (even though, like many of history’s best remembered lines, that phrase in the Treaty of Rome meant something somewhat different). A series of inter-governmental conferences (IGCs) which generated new treaties reinforced this perception – helped by the fact that much of their substance concerned fairly technical and incomprehensible process matters, taken by many in Britain as proof that there must be something rum afoot. The perception of growing power of the EU was further reinforced by the former communist countries’ determination to join it.

At a few times this perception of growing power was real – the most obvious example being the creation of the Euro, and associated architecture of monetary management such as the European Central Bank – but often it was simply a perception. No matter, however, the citizens of the EU, and of Britain in particular, believed it was growing.

The British public

The response of the British public, and in particular the media, has been unambiguous. In popular imagination the European Union became synonymous with an image of anonymous if rather corpulent Belgians, sitting in a drab grey office block somewhere in Brussels, paid a lot of money just to sit there all day long identifying further areas in which they could impose their socialist control over Britain, and roll back the freedoms handed down from generation unto generation through a thousand years of British history.

My favourite illustration of the British public’s view of the EU is the story of the public meeting some time in the early 2000s which was held to debate the upcoming referendum on the European Constitution, and turned to the issue of the difficulty of framing a neutral and fair question for the referendum. “I think”, said one tweedy lady who stood up, “that a fair question would be ’Do you want this country to be run by the Germans?’”, and sat down to great applause.

Dominance of the Eurosceptics

This view of the EU has not grown up simply spontaneously, however. It is the product of a highly successful and very well organised campaign by those opposed to the EU since Delors, to disseminate it. This movement, ever since the Bruges speech, has carefully crafted a message about the European Union, and relentlessly promoted it across a broad range of fronts in the British public debate. The secret of their success has been not making it an ordinary and relatively narrow political campaign – though they have had that through, successively, the anti-European wing of the Conservative Party under Major, the Referendum Party, and UKIP. They have used a broad range of tools – most particularly the media, but also everything else from voluntary organisations to rural civic society – and with a wide range of powerful allies in business to help spread their messages in a highly effective way.

If pro-Europeans ever want to recover our position to the point where we might be able to contemplate winning a referendum, then we are going to have to learn those lessons and follow the same route. (The view of the current Prime Minister that a referendum could have been won from a standing start in just a few weeks is not to be taken seriously). There is no better model than our triumphant opponents for how we should work. If we want to win a referendum on a European issue at any point in the next twenty years then we need to start now.

So there we are. We knew where we were, where the public thought European integration was going, and their opinion of it.

Until now.

The French No as a turning moment for the British?

The French ’no’ vote in their referendum put an end, at least temporarily, to one particular initiative – the Constitution – but more importantly it got wide coverage and has been widely understood across Europe including in the UK, as a sharp brake being put on the ’ever closer union’ (even if the great irony is that in fact it had more to do with French fear that the British were now in the European driving seat). The relentless unstoppable march towards European integration had been, in the public perception, stopped. The British public’s appetite for doing something to call it to a halt has to some extent been vicariously satisfied, in the absence of a referendum of our own, by the French doing the deed for us. To some extent at least, the boil of the pent-up frustration of the British public about the EU, and their desire to interfere to do something to scupper it, has been lanced.

It is well documented that the French No poses the EU a new set of existential questions – where is it now headed?

But it also poses a similar challenge to the anti-Europeans. The anti-European campaign has depended quite heavily on the perception of relentless integration. Now that that crutch has fallen away, they will find it more difficult to stir up opposition to it. Anti-Europeans are of course still a powerful and effective campaign and they will still of course continue to oppose Brussels and its entire works at every turn. But they will find it much more difficult to stir up public sympathy – because the public’s opposition has never been so much to things that the EU is actually doing, most of which are low-key and which the public are remarkably favourable to – but because of their insecurity about a relentless conveyor belt progressively taking away their powers and Historic British Freedoms.

There is a second reason too why the public and media are slowly becoming open to a different view of Europe. Public debate thrives on innovation and difference – and the media in particular do not, in the end, sell papers by reprinting the same story over and over again. For twenty years stories attacking the institutions of authority in Europe – “Brussels’ latest barmy idea” – have been the staple of most newspapers. But just as the public have an innate sense that periodically the government needs to change and, almost regardless of other factors, “it’s time to give the other lot a go”, eventually there comes a time when the public tire of reading the same story re-printed for ever. Eventually this natural rhythm means that there has to be a new twist to the story on Europe.

A window of opportunity for a new direction?

These two factors create a potential opportunity for the British public story on Europe to take a new direction. But much depends on what actually happens within the discussions about what will rise from the ashes of the Constitution.

...there are a lot of areas where the EU can act helpfully to promote the interests of all Europeans, including Britons!

If what comes out of the present negotiations is seen as simply some fairly minor changes to the current status quo, which perhaps orient the EU towards achieving some obvious and popular policy goals – action to tackle climate change, to tackle international crises such as Darfur, or on the Lisbon agenda, for example – then there is every chance that the British story on Europe might start to change. It does not mean that everyone will become a convinced European overnight, and certainly not that the Daily Telegraph will start singing the praises of the EU. But the story would be likely to move away from attacking the endless moves to integration, and on to discussion of the merits of this particular or that particular action – much more like normal politics, in other words.

This would provide a historic opportunity to move Britain away from its anti-European obsession of the last twenty years, and on to discussion of what and how the EU should do things, not whether it should do anything at all. It would be based on broad acceptance that there are a lot of areas where the EU can act helpfully to promote the interests of all Europeans, including Britons.

Conclusion

Of course this is far from certain. It remains extremely unclear what the outcome of the post-Constitutional negotiations will be. They might well contain an outcome which is a renewed move towards integration – or more likely and much more importantly, something which might be seen by some as a renewed move towards further integration. Propped up by this a little longer, anti-Europeanism which remains a powerful force would continue to hold sway. It would however just be postponing the moment at which Britain is prepared to take a different attitude to the EU, not preventing it for ever.

For although there is still a long way to go and much does still depend on the outcome of current discussions, there are already straws in the wind. Britain does now have one overtly pro-European campaigning newspaper, the Independent, which recently carried an excellent list of 50 things that the EU had done for us. Other newspapers are pro-European in a slightly more subtle way (the Financial Times and Guardian). And even the Daily Mail, on one day last year, printed a front page story all about something good that the European Commission had done, which would reduce mobile phone roaming charges for Britons (I was so astonished that I went out and bought a copy!). I don’t claim that as a conversion but things are changing.

And anti-European politicians recognise it too. For all that they like to vent against the EU, there is now no longer a single serious mainstream democratic politician in Britain – or in fact almost in the whole continent of Europe, from the Algarve to Tallinn, from Connemara to Crete – who argues that their country should not be part of the EU. Even the Conservative Party recognises it. I do not believe for a moment that David Cameron has changed his spots – he remains a convinced anti-European, and his party’s “negotiations” over leaving the EPP and trying to set up a rival grouping are a great demonstration of how they have neither a grasp of nor allies in the EU debate. But even the Conservative Party has recognised that however much the British public might dislike the EU, and want to stamp their feet loudly to show their resistance to it, the great majority of Britons recognise that it is our future. Cameron has acknowledged that the British public, in spite of everything, and in much the same way as they would never vote in a party which supported the majority’s views on capital punishment, are not actually willing to vote in an anti-European party to govern Britain.

The EU’s narrative is changing, and the story of British anti-Europeans is having, slowly, to change as a result. Much hangs in the balance about the speed at which it will change, but change it will. The question for pro-Europeans is whether we will be ready to make the most of that opportunity when it comes.

Image: Conflict (cc) yvdc. European flag and Union Jack in a nice contrast. Which one is on top of which, a question that’s highly important in England; source: Flickr

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Your comments

  • On 22 June 2008 at 13:28, by Toni Giugliano Replying to: Cracks in the Ice?

    Hi Jeremy I like your article, it fills with me with optimism! I guess the British ratification (or quasi ratification) inspired you a little... You write that things in Britain are gradually changing -the eurosceptics will gradually give way to acceptance: that the EU is positive for Britain; the press is now more mainstream etc. But to be honest I really dont see anything changing unless there is a real big debate. There is too much fear in Britain amongst the pro Europeans - fear for example that if we have this referendum on Lisbon it would be so drastic that it would risk killing off our membership of the EU once and for all. In order to change perceptions and eradicate the constant “we joined an economic union” nonsense we need to tackle the problem face on. Wouldnt you support a referendum on membership? Membership of a political European Union. Nick Clegg, as you will no doubt know, and many other prominent pro Europeans in Britain have been proposing this for a while now. If we dont have this, Gordon Brown and whoever next will just keep fudging their way along as they have done for the past 30 years. Why is there a constant feeling that Europe is a suppressed issue - i thnk it’s time to tackle it face on - no matter how risky it is.

    ps. We really cant compare the amount of Independent readers to the amount of Sun / Telegraph / most others can we ?!

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