This is an issue which affects my daily life. I am a Brit working and living in Brussels. I have got used to the usual jibes about not caring, about being arrogant and such forth. I accept the fact that the UK is politically isolationist, and to its own detriment. What I do not accept though, is the level of the debate which continues to rage throughout the British Isles and fails to hold our politicians to account. Are you pro or anti EU? What a bloody stupid question!
Am I opposed to the introduction of the Social Charter that bought with it basic societal protection like the minimum wage, no. Am I opposed to the increasing shift towards joint military operations such as Operation Atalanta (that smacks of safe-guarding oil), yes!
Hopefully you get my point. The EU is a complex beast with fingers in many pies. To suggest you are either “pro” or “anti” it is clearly daft.
Firstly let’s expel a myth. The EU is not separate to the UK. The UK is part (a disproportionally powerful part at that) of the EU. Our elected national government has to agree to all legislation that is passed (in the European Council). So when you hear…”it was forced onto us by Brussels”… you can be safe in the knowledge that this is scapegoating. Equally, the UK is represented by 72 Members of European Parliament (which makes up the second part of the bicameral legislative branch of the EU – along with the Council). On top of this, we have just had Baroness Cathy Ashton appointed as the new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy (a sort of EU foreign minister). To suggest that the UK is not an integral part of the EU is nonsense.
Why then, if the UK plays such an integral role in Europe do I get constantly mocked for being a “Brit” (apart from my obsessive tea drinking)? Why is the UK not seen as a “real” part of the EU? This question is a complex one and I do not suggest I hold the full answer. Here though are two possible ideas that might shed some light.
Firstly, there is a historical significance of how we came about to become a member of the EU and how this contrasts with others accession process. We can see that membership of the EU is something all other countries have strived for (in the current Enlargement programme the Balkan states are jumping through hoop after hoop to get in). The UK however, eventually joined the Union in 1973 with a massive sense of feet dragging. Whilst most nations joined with an optimistic sense of opportunity, the UK slouched in to the back of the class to play the disruptive role from the beginning. Ever since then, the UK has been plagued by this concept that we might somehow be losing out. This is something uniquely British. Even other Member States who have tricky domestic politics have the ideological commitment to an integrated Europe to fall back on.
Secondly, New Labour in the early 2000’s, chose a series of policy choices that scuppered their commitment to improve relations with the EU (after 18 years of disastrous relations jerking from one crisis to another). New Labour came into power with a strong commitment to play a key role in the EU. Blair, by all accounts demanded respect within council meetings and for a short while a British voice was taken seriously. In Blair’s own words, he saw himself as a bridge between Europe and the US.
This position however was only successful in the short term. Geo-politics soon meant that Blair had to decide to between Europe and the US. With both France and Germany opposing the American neo-cons war mongering, Blair was left with an opportunity of great strategic importance. At this time of decision between being Bush’s poodle and his strategic commitments within Europe, Blair sat on his metaphorical bridge for so long that the path back to the EU was soon cut off. His inability to criticise the US meant that he lost all credibility and support within the EU (this was all dragged up again recently with him being linked to the position of President of the EU).
Blair, back tracked on his personal enthusiasm for the euro, he smashed any concept of a common position on foreign and security policy within the EU and most of all he isolated himself from all “socialists” across Europe.
Enough about the past though…what does the future hold for us?
In all likelihood a Conservative led government headed by Cameron. This is a man who has chosen to remove his MEP’s from the most powerful block in the European Parliament in favour of teaming up in a marginal group with radicals from central and Eastern Europe (The European Conservative and Reformists Group). This has annoyed nearly all major centre-right figures across the EU. A Cameron UK government will not be taken seriously by their conservative counter parts (who now make up the main power houses across the EU). This EU observer article gives you an idea of how the UK Tories are viewed (http://euobserver.com/9/28783).
The only ray of European hope in British Politics is represented by Greens and Nationalist (Plaid Cymru) who sit in the Greens/EFA group. Both the UK Greens and Plaid Cymru representatives have played a progressive integrationist role in Brussels. This however, is only reflected in the European Parliament and not in the European Council (which has national governments in…i.e. Labour or Conservatives).
The EU is facing a defining two years as it entrenches the changes that the Lisbon treaty has put in place. I welcome the introduction of a progressive British politician into the position of High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. I worry however, that the level of debate in the UK around European politics removes any sense of accountability to our flailing politicians. Cameron should not be able to ruin the UK’s strategic interests in Europe and not be held to account. Browns work to repair relations with the EU should be applauded (opposed to the usual Brown bashing we experience in our media). More to the point, I should not have to endure daily jibes because my fellow countrymen are blind to one of the most powerful influences on their lives and cannot hold their politicians to account.
The UK is lost in Europe but it is not dead. We still (just about) have the economic and political stature to be welcomed back by other Member States. I do not know whether this will still be the case in 5 years after a Cameron premiership!
21 responses to “The UK and the EU”
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When the anchor of the ‘daily politics’ show, does not even know who the current president is…how can we possibly expect politicians like Farage to be held to account…
check out the video on ‘leftfootforwards’ blog
Is that all we can be … “a bridge between Europe and the US”? Can’t the EU have its own relationship with the US? Can’t we have some independence from the US?
Interesting point made about the minimum wage. I understood that Germany doesn’t have one … and that the UK, Ireland (plus one small state I’ve forgotten) have an extremely high minimum wage compared to the rest of the EU. I believe this is a bone of contention. If the UK level was nearer the average (e.g. £3ph) it’s thought that there would be a lot more work in the UK for Europeans, being as £3ph would be very close to our benefits level – so not many British takers likely.
This is 5 years out of date, but I think it acts as a good comparision for minimun wage across the old EU 15
Table 1. National minimum wage (adult rate), 2004, in national currency (gross)*
Belgium Monthly EUR 1,210
Bulgaria Hourly BGN 0.71 (EUR 0.36)
Monthly BGN 120 (EUR 61.43)
Czech Republic Hourly CZK 39.60 (EUR 1.24)
Monthly CZK 6,700 (EUR 210.09)
Estonia Hourly EEK 14.60 (EUR 0.93)
Monthly EEK 2,480 (EUR 158.50)
France Hourly EUR 7.61**
Monthly EUR 1,286.09**
Greece Daily EUR 25.01
Monthly EUR 559.98
Hungary Hourly HUF 305.00 (EUR 1.21)
Daily HUF 2,440 (EUR 9.70)
Weekly HUF 12,000 (EUR 47.68)
Monthly HUF 53,000 (EUR 210.60)
Ireland Hourly EUR 7.00
Latvia Hourly LVL 0.474 (EUR 0.71)
Monthly LVL 80 (EUR 120.26)
Lithuania Hourly LTL 2.95 (EUR 0.85)
Monthly LTL 500 (EUR 144.81)
Malta Weekly MTL 53.88 (EUR 125.89)
Netherlands Monthly EUR 1,264.80
Poland Monthly PLN 860 (EUR 189.98)
Romania Hourly ROL 16,342.44 (EUR 0.40)
Monthly ROL 2,800,000 (EUR 69.12)
Slovakia Hourly SKK 37.40 (EUR 0.93)
Monthly SKK 6,500 (EUR 162.41)
Slovenia Monthly SIT 117,500 (EUR 491.45)
Spain Daily EUR 16.36
Monthly EUR 490.80
UK Hourly GBP 4.85 (EUR 7.14)
* Conversions into EUR, where necessary ** Rate applies only to workers on 39-hour week.
The really interesting question about the UK’s relationship with the EU is whether public opinion is driving policy or policy is being driven by the powers that be (PTB) in the UK. My view would be that the latter is the case. The average Briton is rather indifferent, not to say bored, with the entire debate.
The nature of the PTB is very evident from the manner in which Cameron has approached the question of the policy to be followed assuming he takes power. Charles Grant of the CER has an essay on the subject worth reading.
Click to access essay_936_dec09.pdf
The PTB are running out of road. The likelihood of the rest of the EU responding in a positive manner is nil. Every possible opt-out that could be negotiated has already been negotiated by successive UK governments, irrespective of political colour.
The PTB in the UK, ever since it lodged its first unsuccessful application, have had an ambivalent attitude best summed up by de Gaulle who said, given the choice bwteen the Continent and the open sea, Great Britain would always choose the latter. The Continent has usually facilitated this choice by visibly shooting itself in the foot over the centuries. However, it now seems unlikely to oblige.
My own guess would be that Cameron will be faced with such a domestic crisis, nobody will have time for further pointless ideological debate about Europe. TINA will simply make another appearance.
Last link I promise!
This one is to a response to Daniel Hannan (he was one of the panellists at the Islam and Europe debate that I blogged about: https://stevehynd.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/islam-and-europe/)
Here he outlines 10 reasons why we should leave the EU, and leftfootforward (a New Europe Blogger) responds. Quite interesting I think:
You may be interested to see that the Guardian rates Belgium in its top ten likely trouble spots in 2010 along-side Yemen, Sudan and Iran. The reason they give…Cameron coming to power in the UK. How funny!
I thought you might be interested in this article by Timohty Kirkhope (Tory MEP) about why he thinks the Tories leaving the EPP group for the ECR group was a good idea. I have to say, a weak article at best!
It’s not playing on stereotypes to note that Labour, having run up the biggest budget defeceit in history, have attempted to make it illegal to have a budget defeceit any more than half of that size. King Canute would be proud. You note that “We still (just about) have the economic and political stature to be welcomed back by other Member States,” but doubt that Cameron would improve this position. I would say that after five more years of “borrow and spend more”, we will not even have the economic stature of the Faroe Islands, and our political stature will go with it.
At no point have I stood up and defended New Labour economics. New Labour seems to be based fundamentally on short-termism, lacking any real ideological commitment to anything. I would say that this applies equally to their economic policies. What I am not convinced about, and what you have failed to highlight is why or how the Tories are going to turn-round global economies and make the UK such an economic hot-bed that the EU is going to come drooling after us.
It seems to be quite an unlikely series of events that you are backing!
Very interesting post, Steve! Thanks for talking about this. I still have to read lots to understand the UK position on the EU (if you have any reading suggestion let me know!). I don’t know if it’s available in Belgium, but try to download the podcast I told you about. I think you can find it here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8359160.stm
You continue to play into decade old stereotypes about divides within British politics based on economic policy. Next you will be telling me the Labour are socialists and the greens are just an environmental pressure group.
Good entry. The problem is wider than Cameron and the Conservatives. It is the way we in England (I am slightly less clear on the outlook from Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland)consider ourselves in relation to both the EU and Europe. We are part of the EU, its not us and them, its all us. Even when we acknowledge we are members of the EU we enter into negotiations determined to maximise ‘what we can get out of it’. We should be looking at what we have to offer, how we can make it better, more progressive, fairer more environmental. It is a message we have got to get across to people over here.
Steve, is this your opening salvo to get us all to vote Green at the forthcoming UK General Election? If so then please “come out” and say so and explain the relevance to UK Political reality. Blow your trumpet from the UK roof top – dont just give us a negative “Cameron will not be much better” story from the distant Brussels’ side lines. Now I’ve done it hanven’t I? Dad
I feel as though your response highlights the basic problem. You perceive “Brussels” to be the side-line. This could not be further from the truth. You perceive my blog to be a secret bit of green activism while in actual fact it holds great sincerity. I believe the UK’s strategic interests are tied up with the future of the EU and I think no party could damage thee relations more right now than Cameron’s Conservatives.
The UK’s assets which have in the past made it a global player in the past are declining. The need to position itself strategically is something all political parties (with the exception of the Tories) seem to have grasped to varying degrees. I will openly stand on the roof tops and declare a message…”A Cameron premiership is terrible for the UK”. This statement holds true for many reasons but is a particularly relevant message in relation to the EU.
I am open to the idea of being wrong and thus I lay down a challenge:
Write a response to this blog out-lining two points that would undermine my argument:
1) Why the EU is not crucial in the UK’s strategic interests and
2) Why the UK Conservatives are anything but disastrous for UK-EU relations.
I will await your reply with interest!
2) Why the UK Conservatives are anything but disastrous for UK-EU relations.
Because unlike the Greens (I will leave the Welsh Nationalists out of it) and quite unlike Labour, the Conservatives are the only party to have any economic credibility in their manifesto. An economically strong(er) nation will be viewed with more respect by Europe than a concilliatory but economically weak one.
Good analysis. Cameron’s election will be a disaster for UK-EU politics. Undoubtedly though, the man is siding this way out of pandering to the local population – it’s a democratic country after all. The British have grown very frustrated with the EU, partly because of their frustration with the NL and partly because of what they perceive as too much power by the Franco-German block that rubs the historic pride of the British the wrong way.
Who knows though, there are some indications that the British economy will have suffered a lot more than the rest of the EU and the world by the end of the recession, and this could play into the idea that the UK got out of recession slower because of its isolationist stance and because of its refusal to join the Euro. I sense that the return of the high tide will be strong enough to push the UK into the Euro.
Although an unlikely outcome, It’ll be interesting to watch the irony that might unfold if the Scots gain indepedence but choose to join the EU more fully, applying even more pressure for the UK minus Scotland to follow suit.
I suspect you have a point about the euro, but whether anything can materialise without the tabloids support (which the euro does not have: see…http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/money/2772030/Euro-currency-prompts-Greek-economic-tragedy.html)I do not know.
Reading many blogs and articles on the EU the Scots have a really bizarre level of support. It is almost as if people see Scots as being the politically oppressed subjects of British politics. In terms of EU integration I think Scotland would be welcomed with open arms.
Same bizarre level of support as the Scots have the Catalan pro-independence parties (to whom I hold enormous respect), also seen as “politically oppressed subjects” of Spanish politics. I guess things are seen different when you just read one part of the story.