The Great British Delusion over Europe

By Dr Soeren Keil, Reader in Politics and International Relations

Introduction

The United Kingdom and the European Union (EU), that is a story full of confusion, misunderstandings, mutual grievance and yet somehow also one of mutual need, love and support. To understand the complex relationship between the UK and the EU, it is important to assess what the EU is, what the UK thinks the EU is, what the EU thinks the UK’s role in the EU is and where both see their future. This analysis has become even more important in light of the announcement for a referendum of the 23rd of June 2016, when British voters will be asked if they believe the country should remain a Member State of the European Union.

The Beginnings

It is no surprise that the UK is not one of the founding members of what is today the European Union. After the 2nd World War Winston Churchill famously announced that Britain is “with Europe but not of it”. At that time, the UK still ruled over an Empire, from Palestine to India and large parts of Africa, the British Empire made the country one of the dominant actors of post-war Europe and indeed the world. It is no surprise that the UK received a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and was a founding member of organisations such as NATO. Yet, the Empire quickly collapsed, with India, Pakistan, and Israel all becoming independent in the late 1940s, with many parts of Africa, Cyprus and other overseas territories following in the next 25 years. The UK became an island in Europe. Its focus had to shift as a result of the end of the Empire and the rise of the Cold War architecture, in which two superpowers (not including the UK) ruled most of the world.

At the same time it became obvious, that what started with the Schuman Declaration of 1950 and the Treaty of Rome in 1956, namely a new form of European Economic and Political Community, was very successful. In the 1950s Germany’s economic miracle together with the fruits of Marshall aid in the rest of Europe saw increasing economic growth in the original six Member States of the European Community (EC) (France, West Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy). Hence, in the 1960s the British elite recognised that it would make sense to join this ever-more important Community. When the first British application for membership in the EC was rejected by De Gaulle in 1963, a process of love-hate relationship started, that is continuing until today.

Joining

When the UK eventually joined in 1973, together with Ireland and Denmark, this was by no means a decision out of love for the project of European unification. Instead, the debates surrounding the first referendum, which eventually took place in June 1975 with 2/3 of voters supporting British membership in the EC, demonstrate how polarised parties and the public were even back then.

Many Eurosceptics argue today that what the UK had joined in the 1970s was a trade bloc, a free market that has nothing to do with the “monster” that the EU has become since then. This, of course, is a complete misunderstanding of the EU and its predecessor, the EC. European integration, from the start in the 1950s, was as much about political integration, as it was about economic integration. In fact, Schuman, Monnet, Hallstein and others saw economic integration as a tool to achieve political integration. The Schuman Declaration of 1950 talks about the goal of a “European Federation” and the Treaty of Rome states the desire for “Ever Closer Union” in its preamble. To ignore the political dimension of the integration process is a sign of mis-reading and misunderstanding history.

Yet, the British were not always awkward Europeans. At the beginning, they supported processes to end what became known as “Euroscleorosis”, they pushed for a reform of the common agricultural policy, for more trade liberalisation, and in the 1990s even for a closer cooperation and indeed integration in foreign and security affairs. The crux, however, lies in the fact that neither the British nor the Europeans ever socialised according to each other’s needs. When British and European interests overlapped, then the UK could be a supporter of integration, but more often than not the British focus on sovereignty, the English-dominated focus on independence and the unwillingness to understand what was actually happening in Europe prevailed.

Socialising

In international politics, socialisation is a very important process. States “get used” to each other, they behave in a way that they believe is expected from them, but they can change over time, they can adapt to changing norms and values, promote their own ideas and in some cases force others to behave similarly to them. This social constructivist view of the world has become more prominent in the last 3 decades and is today very important in the IR literature.

The EU-UK relationship is all about failed socialisation. The UK never really adapted to the membership in the EC/EU, it never accepted European values such as compromise, shared sovereignty, solidarity and mutuality, and it was never willing to contribute to these European norms and values. Instead, the British became increasing focused on their own interests. From Margaret Thatcher’s “I want my money back” to John Major’s “I prevented federalism in the Treaty on European Union”, it is a story of nationalist egoism. Liberal intergovernmentalists will tell us that this is the case for all countries, but empirically this is very problematic. Why would Germany give up the Deutschmark, the symbol of German success in the post-war era, the sign of German pride, if it was not willing to push for the further development of the EU? Countries in the EU will of course always promote their own interests, but in many cases political elites have learnt to match their own interests with the interests of the EU as a whole.

This process has never taken place in the UK. Even under Tony Blair, the most pro-European prime minister that the UK ever had, there was a language of red lines, of limits to compromises, of protecting British interests. The language of British interests, of protecting the UK from the EU, has become ever louder under David Cameron.

But the process of socialisation has also failed on the European side. The EU never understood what it means to integrate the British and how they would affect the European project. Jacques Delors famously persuaded Margaret Thatcher to agree to the European Single Act by focusing on trade liberalisation instead of its importance for further political integration. John Major was persuaded to agree to the Maastricht Treaty because it included a commitment to the completion of the single market, not because of its strong focus on creating a political union in which more and more policy areas would be integrated. Tony Blair saw the Nice and Amsterdam Treaties as minor architectural corrections for the EU to prepare for Eastern enlargement (i.e. market expansion), rather than as treaties that would fine-tune a political system, which by then had taken on many of the features of a federal state.

In other words, while the British failed to adapt European norms and values and develop a European identity in which British interests and European interests would be synchronised, European leaders have also supported this development, by allowing the British to see the EU as a trade bloc, by giving it special status and opt-outs, by preventing a discourse on the finalité of the European project and by openly denying the importance of political integration.

Where to go from here

It will be interesting to see what will happen after June 23 in the UK and in the European Union. Chances are that the UK will vote to stay in, and while this will not be an end to the discussions in the UK, it will for a while calm the debates down and allow the UK and the EU to focus on other (many would say more important) issues, such as the refugee crises, economic problems, the future of the Eurozone, troubles in Europe’s neighbourhood, the relationship with Russia, etc.

Should the British vote for a departure from the EU, there will be two years of contracted and difficult negotiations. While people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage might think that it will be easy for the UK to get a free-trade deal with the EU, there is no certainty for this. What is clear is that the EU Member States will not give the UK an easy ride. They have to make sure that the UK does not set an example of a country that can leave the EU but keep all the benefits of membership, as this might incite other countries in Eastern and Southern Europe to do the same. Social constructivism focuses on the importance of learning and dealing with the consequences of wrong decisions in international politics. According to that theory, the EU should impose tariffs and visa requirements for the UK to demonstrate the negative effects of departure from the Union. This is unlikely to happen. But to believe that one can leave and still enjoy all the benefits of memberships without barring any of the costs (in terms of money, immigration etc.) is as ludicrous as to believe that EU integration had nothing to do with political union and was all about the single market.

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