An Island Once Again

British Euroskeptics paint a grotesque caricature of the European Union, but their words are falling on fertile ground. Britain might well become the first country to leave the union.

A great deal was written in 2012 about the potential for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. It seems slightly odd that a country which is not a member of the Euro, and has not faced the kind of economic catastrophes that have befallen other European countries, should be the one most likely to retreat from the European project. Yet for those who have followed UK attitudes toward the EU over recent years it should come as no surprise. Euroskepticism has been a growing force in British politics and the Eurozone crisis has simply been the catalyst for decades of bubbling resentment against European integration to rise to the surface.

The UK has, for several years, exhibited markedly lower levels of public support for the EU than other European states. Eurobarometer – the regular series of EU-wide surveys – consistently places the UK as the most Euroskeptic of the 27 EU members. Although it is difficult to isolate a single reason for why this should be the case, there are undoubtedly a number of circumstantial factors which have combined to produce a negative perception of European integration among the general public. Euroskepticism is far from a uniquely British phenomenon, but there are clearly some elements to British Euroskepticism which make it distinct from perspectives in other European countries.

One particularly interesting feature of the opinion polling data is that anti-EU sentiments appear to be far less common among leading figures in education, business, and politics, than they are among the wider electorate. It is reasonable to suggest therefore that the spread of Euroskeptic attitudes has occurred largely at the grassroots level. There is nothing about British academic thought, for instance, which particularly lends itself to opposing European integration – at least no more than within other European academic communities. As a political ideology, Euroskepticism has also failed to make serious inroads into mainstream decision-making. Despite the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) holding a number of seats in the European Parliament, the clamor for a referendum within the UK Parliament is still confined primarily to the backbenches of the Conservative Party.

It is also worth emphasising that the growth of Euroskepticism is a relatively recent trend in public opinion. Less than 40 years ago, in 1975, the UK successfully held a referendum on maintaining its membership of the European Economic Community. The margin of the ‘yes’ campaign’s victory (with 67.2 per cent voting in favor) seems entirely at odds with current views. The result is still bitterly disputed by British Euroskeptics who claim, somewhat predictably, that the public were simply duped into voting in favor through a concerted campaign of misinformation. Regardless of whether we accept these arguments or not, what is clear is that since 1975 there has been an almost complete reversal in public sentiment. It makes little sense, therefore, to conceive of Euroskepticism as some unique and enduring facet of the British psyche.

The standard explanation for this recent, grassroots-oriented shift in public opinion, usually begins with a discussion of media coverage. The EU has become a target for a variety of tabloid scare-stories which have the sole intention of outraging readers into buying newspapers. A common narrative is that the EU is engaged in an attempt to belittle and undermine the British way of life. These stories are often completely baseless – such as the recent example of the EU allegedly banning Church fetes from reusing jam jars – but they achieve the desired aim of tapping into existing prejudices to generate reader interest. Other articles make exaggerated claims over the amount of money being lost to the EU budget, or play on the supposed absurdity of EU decision-making: such as laws specifying how straight a banana or cucumber must be before being permitted for sale (a fairly silly misrepresentation of food classification standards).

It is interesting to note that many of these narratives also exist in other countries, but simply with a different target. In the United States, for instance, some remarkably similar arguments have been directed at a different international organisation: the United Nations. The same resentment against foreign nations interfering with ‘our business’ is regularly articulated, alongside complaints concerning the amount of money contributed to UN resources. Populist groups, such as those associated with the Tea Party movement, advocate pulling out of the UN as a means to shield the United States from the influence of the rest of the world and recreate a supposed golden age of isolationism in which the country acted only in accordance with its own ideals.

The brand of populist campaigning adopted by UKIP shares many similarities with these perspectives, although it stops short of the kind of isolationism put forward by the Tea Party movement. Unlike the United States, the UK does not have an extensive history of isolationism. The country has exercised an extremely large amount of influence over European affairs for centuries, and through the British Empire has arguably done more to shape the wider world than any other modern state. Even if it were possible in an age of globalization to retreat from the negotiating table and live a genuinely independent existence, it goes completely against the British traditions and principles that are at the heart of most Euroskeptic approaches. Indeed most UKIP members would actively reject the idea that their party is isolationist: instead they would argue that the UK should simply turn its international focus away from Europe.

A more plausible hypothesis might be that Euroskepticism is in some cases a reaction against the UK’s diminished international influence: in which any international compromise and acceptance of economic interdependence is enough to generate acute resentment. In this sense it is not so much an age of isolationism that Euroskeptics seek to recreate, but rather the age in which the UK acted as the world’s largest superpower. Occasionally this is made explicit by advocating that the UK should abandon European integration and seek instead to build a rival relationship among the countries of the Commonwealth. The fact that this precise strategy was attempted and comprehensively abandoned by the British government in the 1950s and 1960s appears to have been forgotten.

There is a danger in subscribing completely to the idea that media coverage accounts for the prevalence of British Euroskeptic attitudes. If this argument is made too strongly it has the net effect of making all Euroskeptic views appear illegitimate: the simple product of misinformation and tabloid hysteria. In reality there is nothing irrational about holding reservations over European integration and much softer forms of Euroskepticism exist outside of the UKIP-endorsed philosophy of withdrawing from the EU at all costs.

With this stated, what chiefly separates the UK from the rest of Europe is the populist dimension. The EU has acted as a kind of placeholder for pre-existing gripes against foreign influence, overly officious lawmaking, and bureaucratic waste. It functions more as a widely despised ‘folk villain’ than a coherent concept. For this reason the EU is just as likely to be criticized by those on the left of the political spectrum as it is by those on the right. The fact that this popular resentment is aimed at a grotesque imagining of the EU – which exists solely within the pages of British newspapers – does not diminish its potential effect on British politics. Unless these sentiments can be challenged there is little hope of the result of the 1975 referendum being repeated 40 years later.

Read more in this debate: Mark Briggs, Stephen Tindale, Sam Macrory.

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