European Affairs

Yet Again, an EU Crisis Looms for Britain     Print Email
Reginald Dale

After half a century of reluctance to commit fully to European integration, Britain is on the verge of another potential crisis with its EU partners. The new crisis is unlikely to be provoked by the general election that Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for May 5, at least not if Mr. Blair wins the election as expected. The crunch will come when Mr. Blair calls on Britons to approve the new European constitution in a separate referendum in 2006, a vote he could well lose.

If Britain were to say “No,” and especially if it were the only EU member state to do so, the country’s entire future relations with the rest of Europe, including British EU membership, would be called into question. The crisis could also come much sooner in the less likely event that the opposition Conservatives won the May 5 election. The Conservatives are committed to rejecting the constitution and have said they will hold a referendum within six months of gaining power. But whether Britain says “Yes” or “No,” its long-running European dilemma is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Reginald DaleOne afternoon in early January, 2002, as euro bills and coins were starting to circulate in the 12 countries that had joined the EU single currency, an elderly lady entered a small shop in southern England and tendered a £20 note for her purchase. “And don’t give me any of them euros in the change,” she told the shopkeeper. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “that’s only for the French and Germans.” A relieved look came over the lady’s face. “Well, that’s all right then,” she said.

The lady was only a sample of one. But she exemplified two longstanding features of the national mentality, rooted deep in history, culture and geography, which still have profound political consequences in today’s Britain. The first is widespread ignorance about European integration, including, most seriously, a failure to understand that EU membership is not a static condition but a dynamic process; the second a deeply ingrained belief that while plenty of newfangled ideas dreamed up in Brussels may be fine for continental Europe, they are not all right for Britain.

The well-grounded national instinct that tells Britons they are different from other Europeans has bedeviled the country’s relations with its European neighbors ever since postwar European integration began in the 1950s. In the half century since World War II, during which their country was obliged to dismantle one of the world’s greatest empires, the British have failed to find a comfortable home in the European Union, or to define clearly the role they want to play in Europe.

Since joining the Union 15 years after the original six founding members, in 1973, Britain in fact has fought a constant rearguard action, interspersed with occasional tantrums and frequent demands for special treatment, against the drive by continental countries for closer political unity in Europe. Although the British bulldog usually ends up joining the pack of continental hounds as they move forward, it often has to be dragged along on a leash. Sometimes it manages to stay in its kennel. Britain is the only country among the 15 member states of the European Union before its enlargement in May 2004 to have stayed out of both the euro and the Schengen agreement abolishing EU internal borders for travelers.

Now the British are facing another looming crisis in this seemingly endless saga of Hamlet-like aversion to commitment. The crisis is unlikely to be precipitated by the general election that Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for May 5 – or at least not if he wins it, as expected, albeit with a smaller majority. Provided Mr. Blair carries the election – or even if he is forced to form a coalition with the much smaller, pro-European Liberal Democrats – the crunch will come in the referendum on the European constitution that Mr. Blair has promised for 2006. By making this pledge, against his better judgment,Mr. Blair, who supports the constitution, has taken a huge gamble with his own and the country’s future. It is perfectly possible, though by no means certain, that a majority of the British electorate will say “No” to the constitution, reopening the whole issue of Britain’s future links with its neighbors, including perhaps its membership of the European Union.

The moment of truth would come far sooner in the less likely event that the Conservative opposition were to win the May 5 election. The Conservatives have not only announced their opposition to the constitution, but also promised to hold a referendum within six months of coming to power. That would mean before the end of November, in the event of a Conservative election victory. And if the Conservatives were to achieve a surprise election upset, it would suggest that the British public might be more inclined to follow their lead and throw out the constitution.

The crisis would be even more intense if, as is also perfectly possible, Britain were the only one of the current 25 EU member states to reject the constitution. A recent Eurobarometer poll, published by the European Commission in January, found that Britain was the only EU country in which more people opposed than supported the constitution. It is not without reason that some French history teachers used to begin each lesson with the admonition: “Never forget that England is an island.” As Darwin showed in the Galapagos, island creatures tend to evolve differently from their mainland counterparts.

Of course, Britain has changed immeasurably in the past half century. Today it faces more toward the continent, and less to the open sea, than at any time since the start of the Elizabethan era in the 16th century. Around 60 percent of British exports go to the rest of Europe, and London has become a magnet for young Europeans seeking exciting jobs in finance and high technology in an easy-going, freewheeling society. Not least because of the Channel Tunnel, more Britons visit the continent than ever before, and many more speak French, German and other European languages.

But multicultural London is as much a global as a European center. Its ever closer cultural and business ties with New York, for instance, have led one leading American news magazine to lump the two together as virtually a single city and dub it “NyLon.” At the same time, as London has become more Europeanized and globalized, the capital has become less representative of the rest of Britain, especially the countryside.

Rural England has not suffered the supposed national “identity crisis” announced with such great fanfare by the London-centric media in recent years, and is still home to the country’s traditional, if perhaps sometimes insular, values. In 1999, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher struck a chord with many voters, and not just conservatives, when she stated that, “In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations of the world.”

Although many Britons know that logically their country’s place is now in Europe, many also understandably find that unwelcome truth hard to reconcile with centuries of history in which Britain’s aim was to create a balance of power on the continent so that it could venture out onto the high seas, where it really belonged, and pursue the expansion of the English-speaking peoples. As for the proposed EU constitutional treaty, Britain has never even had a written constitution, let alone one mostly drafted by foreigners.

After World War II, the continental countries saw the construction of a united Europe as akin to a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a triumphant renaissance of hope in the wake of agony and devastation. Except for a few neutral states, all the West European continental countries were occupied or defeated, or both, in the war. Britain alone suffered neither fate – on the contrary, the country fought ferociously and victoriously to preserve its nearly 1,000 years of independence. For the British, participation in European integration, with its plans for the pooling of national sovereignty, seemed more like a defeat, the forced acceptance of an unwanted destiny

It is true, of course, that many of the country’s leaders, including Mr. Blair, believe that Britain’s interests are best served by playing a leading role in the European Union, and there are plenty of pro-Europeans, even supporters of a federal Europe, among the country’s elite. There are valid arguments that Britain, as a medium-sized European power comparable to France, can best project its influence as part of a strong, united Europe. U.S. governments have also traditionally supported an active British role in European unification to help steer the continent toward open markets and Atlanticism.

Nevertheless, Britain has now been a member of the European Union for a generation and a half, and many Britons still harbor a lingering mistrust of their continental neighbors, particularly of France and Germany, and a resentment of centralized decision-making in Brussels. In the nation at large, there is a widespread feeling that successive British governments have not come totally clean about their intentions with regard to Europe – that the country has unwittingly been drawn much farther into a supranational venture than it knew or wanted.When Britons hear about some new advance toward closer unity, such as the euro or the constitution, they often complain that “this is not the Europe we joined,” or “we were never told about this.”

Such objections are partly due to the widespread British inability to understand that joining the European Union was the equivalent of boarding a moving train, not one permanently stopped in the same station. But it is also true that governments have often sold European integration to the voters by persuading them it will mean fewer changes for Britain than it really does. Mr. Blair, for example, is not telling the whole truth when he insists that a British decision to join the euro would not be political, but purely economic – and large numbers of his fellow citizens know it.

In a poll conducted by YouGov Ltd. in January 2005, an astonishing 67 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “successive governments have frequently misled the public about how Britain’s relationship with the European Union was in fact developing.” An even more overwhelming 79 percent said they felt that the British people had not been sufficiently consulted about how they wanted the relationship to develop.

This is why, virtually every time he joins in a significant political decision in Brussels, Mr. Blair immediately goes on television to reassure his compatriots that they are not being sucked into a “European Superstate.” It is why the government’s campaign for a “Yes” vote in the constitutional referendum will focus mainly on persuading the public that the constitution does not change very much in practice, that it is simply a tidying up of previous European treaties and certainly not a step toward a federal Europe – even though many on the continent have welcomed it as precisely that.

In an attempt to destroy “myths” about the constitutional treaty, the Foreign Office is circulating a series of brief rebuttals containing apparently little known “facts” such as these: the common foreign policy is not new, Britain will not be forced to join the euro, the Queen will remain Head of State, British armed forces will remain under British control and the new European Charter of Fundamental Rights will not prevent women-only swimming or outlaw Sunday School.

All that may well be true, and it is certainly to the nation’s advantage to have the facts in front of it before people vote. It does not alter the reality, however, that one of the main reasons why Mr. Blair’s decision to hold a referendum is so risky is the British people’s basic mistrust of government statements about Europe – a factor of which Mr. Blair is fully aware. It was a decision he did not want to take. He ultimately did so, in April 2004, under heavy political and media pressure. Even though referendums are not part of Britain’s constitutional traditions (Britain does have Yet Again, an EU Crisis Looms for Britain an unwritten constitution) it became increasingly difficult to resist demands that the people have their say.

Like so many of Mr. Blair’s important decisions, with the notable exception of his commitment to support the United States over Iraq, his choice of timing for the referendum was prompted less by a long-term, strategic view of Britain’s role in Europe or the world, but by tactical, short-term political considerations. In order to avoid another damaging wrangle over Europe in this year’s national election campaign, he hoped to defer a divisive debate on the constitution until later – in much the same way as President Jacques Chirac has tried to postpone the controversy in France over Turkish EU entry by promising a referendum if and when Turkey comes close to joining, perhaps in ten years’ time.

The ruse looks likely to be only partially successful in the short term - and positively dangerous for Mr. Blair in the medium term. The Conservative Party is not holding back on Europe before the election, and the campaign against the constitution by the Vote No movement is already in full swing. Mr. Blair’s government, while mildly defending the constitution, is constrained by its desire not to make Europe an election issue.

Mr. Blair, however, is unlikely to lose the election on Europe. In the YouGov survey cited above, only 20 percent of respondents said that Europe, including the euro and the constitution, was the most important issue facing the country. Europe ranked ninth, far behind concerns over law and order, health, immigration, pensions, poverty and social security. When asked what mattered most “to you and your family,” only 12 percent opted for Europe, dropping its ranking to twelfth.

Europe, indeed, has hardly figured as a major topic in the election, which is being fought almost entirely on domestic issues. Mr. Blair’s New Labour Party has chosen its success in managing the economy and education as the main themes for its campaign. The Conservatives are focusing on improving the police force, hospitals and schools, lowering taxes and controlling immigration. In Reaganesque terms, they say they want to get government off people’s backs.

There are good reasons for politicians to be wary of the European issue. Political infighting over Europe contributed to the fall of both of Mr. Blair’s Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the British public is deeply suspicious of the constitution. Mr. Blair has a history of shunning risky positions on Europe. Although he has long promised a referendum on joining the euro, and pledged to campaign strongly for it, he has consistently evaded the issue by pushing it into the future. He has snared himself in a Catch 22. He will not hold a referendum on the euro until he is sure of winning, but he cannot win unless he comes out and campaigns vigorously for it, and he does not want to do that in case he loses.

On the euro,Mr. Blair has the excuse that his colleague and arch political rival, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has declared that the economic conditions are not right for Britain to join the single currency. But while Mr. Blair still hopes to get away with his argument that the decision on the euro is basically economic, he cannot deny that the issues posed by the constitution are political, or postpone the constitutional referendum beyond next year. The constitution must be ratified in all 25 member states by the autumn of 2006 if it is to enter into force.

The danger for Mr. Blair is that by deciding to hold a referendum on the constitution after the election, he has separated out the European issue, on which he is widely opposed, from all the other issues, on which he is more popular. It is clear that hostility to the constitution is pervasive, although there are some signs that it is diminishing. In February, a poll commissioned by The Times newspaper reported that 36 percent favored approval of the constitution, compared with only 29 percent against. The poll followed another survey at the end of January that showed 39 percent in favor and 41 percent against.

The constitution’s proponents believe that people will rally to the cause once the debate gets fully under way and they learn more about it. “Victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign is achievable,” says Simon Hughes, President of the opposition Liberal Democrats, who support the constitution. Lucy Powell, Director of Britain in Europe, which is campaigning for a “Yes” vote, confidently predicts that “as people understand what the treaty will and won’t do, they will reject the isolation proposed by the No campaign and vote to approve the new treaty.”

Other polls, however, have detected massive resistance. A survey cited at the end of January by The Sun, the country’s biggest selling newspaper, suggested that 56 percent would vote “No,” and only 24 percent “Yes.” The Vote No movement has stated that 60 percent of Britain’s biggest companies oppose the constitution.

In March, Roger Liddle, who advised Mr. Blair on Europe for seven years from 1997 to 2004, warned that the government must start campaigning on “day one” after the election if it is to avoid the “unmitigated political disaster” of losing the referendum. He urged the government to give priority to its links with Europe rather than talking about Britain’s special relationship with the United States.

In fact, with the election approaching, Mr. Blair has been doing precisely that for the past few months. Anxious to disprove the common allegation that he has played the role of President George W. Bush’s “poodle” over Iraq, Mr. Blair has been seeking to insinuate himself into the Franco-German partnership to make the point that he is a European as well as an Atlantic leader. While it is doubtful that he will ever gain full entry into the Franco-German club – Mr. Chirac has told him that to his face – he has been making some progress. In their joint diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon nuclear weapons, Britain, France and Germany are now habitually described as the EU-3, a designation that annoys many other EU countries and most of all Italy, which considers itself a fully paid-up member of the European Union’s “Big Four.”

Mr. Blair will also try to make the most of Britain’s presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2005 to show that the country has an important and influential role to play in Europe. He will also seek to showcase Britain’s international clout as a major European power during the country’s chairmanship of the G8 throughout this year.

It is far from certain, however, that consorting so openly with European leaders will help Mr. Blair very much in the referendum campaign. The government argues that approving the constitution will help to maximize Britain’s influence in Europe and the world, whereas rejecting it would “isolate ourselves in an organization so vital to our national interests,” in the words of Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. If the “No” vote prevails, he says, Britain will enter “unknown territory” and be left “weak and isolated” in Europe. Rejection of the constitution would imperil Britain’s “power and prosperity,” leaving the country “out on the margins with no say in Europe’s future direction.”

Opponents of the constitution, on the other hand, are not impressed by Mr. Blair’s forming common positions with France and Germany, precisely because they want Britain to maintain its independence in domestic and foreign affairs. On the economic front, Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, also argues that the constitution will “make Europe’s economy even less flexible, even less competitive and even more sluggish than it is today.” It is ironic that while many European integrationists in other countries dislike the constitution because it is too “Anglo-Saxon,” the main argument of the treaty’s opponents in Britain is that it constitutes a threat to British national sovereignty.

It is true that Mr. Blair managed to dilute many of the more integrationist aspects of the constitution during negotiations with his EU partners in 2004. He successfully defended his “red lines” – demands that the national veto be preserved in foreign and defense policy as well as in fiscal matters and social security. Some supporters of free markets argue that the maintenance of the veto in tax policy was the biggest single success story of the negotiations, in that it will prevent a majority led by France and Germany from imposing their suffocating high tax rates throughout the Union. Many of the constitution’s critics in France, on the other hand, argue that is precisely for such reasons that the constitution is in fact an “ultra-liberal” charter that will destroy traditional continental social solidarity.

In defending the constitution in Britain, Mr. Straw has actually sought to confirm many of the integrationists’ worst fears. The constitution, he said in February, “gives us our kind of Europe, based firmly on the power and legitimacy of the nations of Europe.” Translated into the language of Brussels, he means that those in favor of inter-governmental decision-making have triumphed over those, especially in Germany, who want a more federal or supranational Europe.

Of course, each government will defend the constitution in the way that most appeals to its own electorate. And differing interpretations are encouraged by the numerous contradictions and ambiguities contained in the lengthy and often complex text. But the need to appeal to British voters puts the government in an especially awkward position. The essentially negative argument that the constitution does not really change very much is hardly an inspiring battle cry. Mr. Blair and his colleagues cannot promote the treaty as a positive step toward the noble vision of a united Europe, because that is precisely what most Britons do not want.

One of the main characteristics that distinguish the British from their continental neighbors is a deep suspicion of visionary concepts, indeed of any kind of concepts at all. To the extent that they view European integration in a positive light, most Britons have always seen it as a predominantly economic exercise that they hope will bring practical benefits in terms of trade and investment. With their pragmatic approach to problemsolving, their preference for action over philosophizing and their common law history, Britons are deeply suspicious of grand designs and ideals, which they think may point the way to tyranny and totalitarianism. A statement once made by Mr. Chirac, that “Europe is not a continent; it is an idea,” is virtually incomprehensible to most British people (as well as to most Americans).

It is this reluctance to embrace the “European ideal” that has rendered British intentions so suspicious to some of its partners, and particularly to France, throughout the constant toingand- froing over Britain’s relations with Europe during the past half century. Some of this is due to a cultural misunderstanding. Often, by questioning what they see as woolly-minded conceptual thinking, the practical British are not so much conspiring to undermine the drive to a united Europe as seeking to understand what it means before they embrace it. On the other hand, of course, it is true that they do not want it to go as far as the most ardent integrationists would like.

Whether or not they are misunderstood, however, the least one can say is that British attitudes have not endeared the nation to many of its continental partners, who believe that you must commit yourself to the concept first and then work out the details. (The British believe that you work out the details first and then consider how best to describe the end result.)

What all this means in today’s political context is that rejection of the constitution by Britain, and particularly by Britain alone, would not be received with much sympathy in Paris and Berlin. Quite apart from the constitution, many in France and Germany believe that Britain’s alliance with the United States over Iraq once again demonstrated the truth of De Gaulle’s historic warning that Britain could never be really European so long as it maintained its ties to the English-speaking world. While a number of Britain’s friends might not want to see the country isolated, they would be less inclined to offer the British another chance if they had themselves ratified the constitution.

The consequences of such an outcome can for now only be a subject for speculation. As Dana Spinant argues elsewhere in this issue of European Affairs, Britain might find itself forced out of the European Union, by pressure either from its continental partners or from its own public opinion. Rightly or wrongly, many Britons would not consider this a complete disaster.

In the YouGov poll, only 27 percent said they wanted either more or full European integration. Sixteen percent wanted to maintain Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe roughly as it is. Forty-seven percent, however, wanted a much less integrated Europe, with the European Union reduced to little more than a free trade area, or complete British withdrawal from the Union.

If Britain left the Union, of course, it would not sever all links with it. There would have to be difficult negotiations to maintain the economic links between the 24-nation Union and Britain to avoid a complete disruption of trade. Britain would probably seek some kind of associate status, perhaps based on the European Economic Area, of which only Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are currently members.What is clear, however, is that Britain would lose all influence over economic and financial decisions that affected its interests and over the future political direction of Europe.

It is by drumming home this risk that the supporters of the constitution, and of active British EU membership, hope to win a possibly narrow victory in the referendum. The Conservative idea that Britain could say “No” to the constitution, stay in the European Union and negotiate a new treaty returning more powers to national governments does not seem realistic in the current European political context. Even if the constitution’s advocates fail to convince the voters, they have at least one hope left: that some of their fellow Europeans will save them. Britain would be released from the threat of political crisis if a number of other EU member states, preferably including France, were also to say “No.” That is the main reason why Mr. Blair is planning to hold the vote in Britain last of all the 25 member states.

Mr. Blair wants to go down in history as a European as well as a British and Atlantic statesman. But that is not the only reason he will campaign for a “Yes” vote. He would almost certainly have to resign if the constitution were rejected. By going last, his idea is that massive pressures will mount on the British to say “Yes” if everyone else has already approved the constitution. Alternatively, Mr. Blair will be off the hook if other countries have already said “No,” thus ensuring that the constitution, which must be ratified unanimously, cannot enter into force.

That, of course, would not be the end of the story. Rejection of the constitution would not end debate on the future of Europe. Too many continental countries want to continue toward the ever-closer union prescribed in the Rome Treaty, which laid the foundations of the European Union in 1957, for the effort to be abandoned. Although the risk of an immediate clash with its neighbors would be averted, London would still face the as yet insoluble problem of devising an acceptable relationship with a group of powerful neighbors that want more integration than Britain does.

The same would equally apply if British voters accepted the constitution, especially if they did so on the basis of promises by the government that nothing would really change. If the constitution enters into force, there is little doubt that it will have far greater integrationist consequences than the British are currently being led to expect. The same old complaints that the government has misled the people will once again, quite rightly, be heard.

The best outcome would be for the British to use the referendum finally to decide in a clear cut manner, and in full knowledge of the facts, whether they want to join in further European political integration or to stay out of it. If they choose to participate, they should try to show some enthusiasm for the constitution and the further moves toward integration that it implies. If not, they should end the debilitating, half-hearted relationship with the rest of Europe in which they have for so long indulged, and negotiate a separate, durable, special status.

The problem will never be solved until the British people actually make up their minds as to what they really want. They are now being given an opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, the referendum is unlikely to produce such a clear cut result, nor are the subsequent maneuverings inside the European Union if the British, and perhaps some others, say “No.” In other words, the curtain is unlikely to come down on the long-running tragicomedy of Britain’s indecision over whether it wants to be or not to be in Europe for the foreseeable future.

Reginald Dale is Editor-in-Chief of European Affairs, a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune and a media fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was previously a senior editor and foreign correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and the London Financial Times.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2005.

 
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