The Ripon Forum

Volume 50, No. 2

April 2016

Facing Britain’s European Obsession

By on April 17, 2016

Britons will soon vote in a much-anticipated referendum on whether to
remain in or leave the European Union. Whatever the result, the rest
of Europe and the USA should not expect an end to Britain’s
obsession with arguing about Europe.


tim oliver

tim oliver

I was recently emailed by a UK high school student asking me a frequently asked but deceptively simple question: why is the UK holding a referendum on EU membership? Whole books have been written to explain Britain’s difficult relationship with the EU. The referendum debate has seen endless pages of analysis and arguments about whether Britain should ‘Brexit’ or — in an equally awful abuse of the English language — ‘Bremain.’

There is no denying Britain’s unease at being a member of the EU. A victor in the second World War, Britain was left feeling it could stand aloof from an integration project intended to help defeated and occupied countries come to terms with the trauma of war. Britain only joined after a slow realisation that the Union was economically successful and about more than just economics. As a major European power, Britain could not sit outside what was fast becoming Europe’s predominant organisation for politics, economics and non-traditional security. Today, UK-EU relations reach deep into large areas of the UK’s politics, constitution, economics, society, identity, security and global position.

There is no denying Britain’s unease at being a member of the EU.

The EU has been a great success, but has recently run into no end of problems. The Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis straining the Schengen common travel area, European ineptness at handling the Ukraine crisis, and a feeling the EU is falling behind the USA and emerging powers have left little positive news for the EU in Britain. The UK’s government undertook its own detailed assessment of the relationship and found that despite the EU’s problems, membership remains beneficial for the UK. But long-ingrained unease about membership has made it difficult to dispel the feeling in British politics that something is wrong.

When it comes to politics, there is one politician responsible more than any other for the vote: David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party. He has shown himself to be no strategist in dealing with Conservative divisions over Europe that date back to the late 1980s and which have in recent years been heightened by unease – sometimes verging on hysteria – over immigration. He is a risk taker and a manager of events as they unfold. He has repeatedly failed to develop a strategy for dealing with his party’s European question other than buying off Conservative Eurosceptics through offers of reviews or renegotiations of UK-EU relations, and, finally, a referendum. He now has to deliver on a vote he hoped would never happen and which he must now realise he is far from guaranteed to win.

If he loses the vote, then he is to some extent reaping what he and his party have sown. For several decades, the Conservative party has had nothing positive to say about the EU. Yet in private UK-EU relations, British governments – including Conservative ones – have been more positive, a recognition of the realpolitik of EU membership. This Janus faced approach has left only a poisoned, twisted public face to Britain’s EU membership.

The Prime Minister and senior members of his party now find themselves making a case for an organisation they have long played the easy game of maligning for cheap political point scoring. To be fair, the Labour party has been little better. Their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a 1970s socialist who was once quite public in his opposition to an EU he saw as a capitalist free-market club. He says his opinions have changed. Like Cameron, the British people doubt his sincerity.

With opinion polls showing the vote is too close to call, it could be that the long-running inability in British politics to give the British people a reasoned and fair analysis of EU membership could lead them to vote to leave.

It could be that the long-running inability in British politics to give the British people a reasoned and fair analysis of EU membership could lead them to vote to leave.

As no end of analysis points out, a vote to leave would have profound implications for the UK’s economy, politics, unity, identity, and standing in the world. A country famed for its economically liberal, outward looking view of the world could instead move towards being more inward looking, disunited and protectionist.

It would also be a defining moment for the EU and an unwanted headache for the USA. A British exit could change the EU in any number of ways. Germany’s leadership of the EU would be strengthened; the EU could become less Atlanticist; free-market economics less in vogue. Rid of a member that has been an obstacle to integration, the EU might unite further. A British exit might also begin the Union’s unravelling, much to the delight of Putin’s Russia.

It is these wider changes to the EU and Europe’s geopolitics that will be the first concern of the US government. If the UK-US relationship is special, then the same must also be said for the much bigger US-European relationship. Despite their differences, no two regions of the world are as integrated economically, politically and in shared security. A Brexit that changes the EU and Europe in ways that are counter to those of the USA or a strong transatlantic relationship will hardly leave the UK in the USA’s good books.

This is not to suggest that a vote to remain will resolve the issue. Divisions within the Conservative Party are too deeply embedded. Europe is a multifaceted issue that reaches deep into almost every aspect of the UK’s existence and political debates. A vote to leave will not see that disappear. It is an issue that can only be managed, never settled – something Britain’s politicians have shown themselves repeatedly incapable of doing.

If Cameron thought the referendum would settle the debate about UK-EU relations, then he is deluding himself. Future divisions and referendums on European/EU matters are highly likely whatever the result of the vote on 23 June.

Tim Oliver is a Dahrendorf Fellow for Europe-North American relations at the London School of Economics.

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