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!