Why the British obsession with Brexit from the EU?

A curious aspect of current British politics is the huge amount of energy being invested on the Eurosceptic right about holding a referendum on Brexit, on Britain leaving the EU (formerly the EEC). Yet, public opinion seems remarkably disinterested. The issue has potentially massive implications for the economy and Britain’s future role in the world, and yet it is hardly being discussed so far in the long election campaign of 2015. It could be a make-or-break matter in any coalition negotiations afterwards. What’s going on?

A history of ambiguity

In general there has been an ambiguity in Britain’s attitude to Europe. Just notice those last words. There’s an in-built tendency to see the UK as different from “Europe”, reinforcing the island mentality of separateness and its long history of resistance to dominance of the “Continent” by a superpower. Britain held back from the formation of the EEC in 1957 and was then twice refused entry by De Gaulle’s veto. When Britain joined in 1973, it was opposed by Labour for whom it was a divisive issue and who then gradually switched their stance, particularly after European social democrats enacted the Social Chapter on workers’ rights. A referendum was needed in 1975 on whether to stay in the EEC, in order to resolve internal differences.

The Conservative Party’s problem with the EU

For a long time now the UK Conservative Party has been divided over the EU, despite their championship of the EEC under Heath. A large part of the party since the fall of Mrs Thatcher have wanted a British Exit (“Brexit”). While Thatcher was always clear that Britain should always “be at the table” in influencing the direction of the EU, under Major there were persistent revolts by Conservative backbenchers, whom Major called the “bastards”. There was dislike of the project of Eurocrats for “ever closer union” as envisaged in the Treaties. For example the idea of a federation as the political framework was opposed, whilst the single market was seen as a preferable basis for a common European entity. Attempts to join the euro under Major backfired, when Britain was ejected from the ERM in 1992, on “Black Wednesday” after a run on Sterling. This left bitter memories.

Conservative party membership, already small by historic standards, is mainly of older people, many of whom can date their political awareness back to pre-EEC times. There is a grass roots dislike of EU membership and constituency parties tend in the main to select eurosceptic Parliamentary candidates. While the party was divided on Europe under Major, under his successors the leadership took a more eurosceptic position in opposition after 1997. When Cameron became leader in 2005, he adopted a moderate approach in a bid to take more of the centre ground from Labour.

Cameron’s difficulties

However when he became Prime Minister in 2010, he had behind him in the House of Commons a very eurosceptic party, with about 100 new and very right-wing MP’s who were looking for Brexit. Cameron has perhaps tried more than people give him due to build a more moderate position on Europe, such as his desire to achieve reform in the EU. He has been pushed consistently by his right towards a stance where he has opted out of much EU discussion, becoming very isolated in Europe, and threatened that, if his proposed re-negotiation of the UK’s terms of membership are unsuccessful, Britain would leave. Thus people in Europe refer to the “British problem” when discussing this subject. Cameron’s official position is that he plans after the 2015 election to attempt this re-negotiation, despite it already having been rejected by almost all other states, and then put the outcome to a referendum in 2017. Even now the right are pushing him to bring that date forward to 2016, which would make such negotiations all but impossible.

The rise of UKIP populism

It should be said that, while Conservative euroscepticism pre-dates the rise of UKIP, hostility to the EU has also risen in line with the growth of UKIP. As referred to elsewhere in this blog, the backlash against the recession and dissatisfaction with political leadership in Westminster spurred the growth of UKIP as a populist movement. Tories have as a result been running scared of the loss of their seats to UKIP insurgents and thus have been pressing hard for Cameron to steal UKIP’s thunder on Europe. Yet each concession seems to make no difference, at least until recently, although it is hard to say whether the recent decline in support has anything to do with Conservative policy on Europe; it is probably much more about a focusing of minds away from flirtation with minor parties as the general election draws nearer and a reflection of the effect of the improving economy.

Thus opposition to EU membership is at present very much a phenomenon of the right in British politics, fostered, some might suggest, by strong euroscepticism amongst a right-wing dominated press and powerful wealthy political donors in the Conservatives and UKIP. There are much smaller parts of Labour that have problems with the EU and the Liberal Democrats are very strong EU supporters.

The EU was arguably a project of the political elite, as it was in other European countries, and public opinion has tended to be rather less engaged. Opinion polls place the issue very low down as a priority, often not making the top 10 of key issues. Ipsos-Mori and YouGov polls have shown a surprisingly large level of recent support for EU membership, and it is perhaps wise to say that opinion is currently evenly divided.

Anybody suggesting, as certain right wing papers have done, that the UK would vote strongly for Brexit would be grossly misrepresenting how voters treat proposed major changes. UK voters tend towards moderation and referenda have often been won by those opposed to change. Thus they voted to stay in the EU in 1975; voters rejected a change to the electoral system in 2011 and in 2014 Scottish voters voted by a 10% margin to stay in the UK. Opinion polls have been shifting in favour of status quo, after long opposed, arguably as the prospect of a vore has got closer. It is usually the economy that is decisive in voting behaviour and the arguments about the impact on the economy would be difficult for Brexit people to win, as it was for the SNP in Scotland in 2014.

No doubt a strong case can be made for EU reform. For example it is remote from the electorate across Europe; it has never really engaged people at the grass roots, being as I said an elite project; it is arguably institutionally dysfunctional, has very slow decision-making processes; there is an ongoing conflict between Parliament and the Commission; there is a tendency to assert bureaucracy over democratic participation; elections tend to actually be about domestic issues and are treated in many countries as national protest occasions as result of which fringe parties can be over-represented; voter turnout is lower than in national elections.

In the UK, one might say that the EU is a scapegoat issue, in the sense that “the EU” gets blamed for problems when responsibility for those problems actually belong elsewhere. Thus the EU’s remoteness could be part of its difficulty  when set against the real problems affecting people’s lives. It is easy, for example, to blame economic problems on EU bureaucracy limiting economic growth. Across Europe disillusionment with the European project has become widespread as Europe has struggled with austerity, unemployment has been high and the eurozone has moved closer to outright deflation.

In the 100th anniversaries of the First World War that are being commemorated, and with Putin’s Russia threatening Europe in the East, it might be salutory for leaders of all persuasions to reflect on how how hard union has been won, and how easily it can be surrendered to centrifugal forces, particularly those of nationalism.

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