Building a new Europe: Engaging with British euroscepticism

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A guest blog post by Simon Usherwood - part of ECFR's EU at the crossroads project.

The UK’s relationship with the European Union (EU) has never been a simple one.  In part, this has been due to the lack of a ‘meta-narrative’ of transcending national problems or of returning to Europe.  But it also reflects the structure of British politics, shaped as it is by a dialogic, confrontational style, where majorities make decisions and minorities contest them.

The pragmatism that has informed generations of British politicians in Brussels has had profound consequences.  Whereas the dominant mode of debate in the Union and its predecessors has historically been one of consensus and avoiding explicit ‘losses’, the seemingly permanent unwillingness (or inability) of British government ministers to ‘speak Europe’ has opened up an increasingly important discursive space, of juste retourand cost-benefit. One only has to look at the evolution of budget negotiations since Thatcher’s successful handbagging in the early 1980s to see how more and more member states have focused on a single bottom-line approach.

Nevertheless, however we conceptualise the roots and the labelling of critical discourse in the UK – as eurosceptic, eurocritical, eurorealist – then we also have to acknowledge that such discourse has largely been treated as marginal.  Even with both major political parties having held anti-EU positions at points (e.g. Labour’s policy of withdrawal in 1983 or the Conservatives’ 2001 ‘Save the Pound’ campaign), this has largely been kept within oppositional politics: as Nick Sitter argued, euroscepticism can usually be understood as a tactical device by which those outside government can score political points.  Certainly, in the British case, official policy has never come to a position that is fundamentally incompatible with the process of European integration, even if it has proved deeply awkward at times.

This might appear at odds with the lay view of the UK, especially since both public opinion and the print media have markedly more negative attitudes than their counterparts elsewhere.  In order to make sense of it, we have to recognise that the flip-side of pragmatism is an unwillingness either to undertake revolutionary changes in policy or to shut policy doors definitively.  Hence the extensive hedging that the current government has engaged in since taking office, as with the Lisbon treaty, the European Union Act and the budgetary negotiations.

All of this is to focus solely on party politics and, while this is important, is not the only aspect we need to consider.  The UK has long been the leading location for non-party political pressure groups and civil society activity (see Fitzgibbon for discussion of some cases).  From the early days in the early 1990s of emergent eurosceptic movement in the UK, groups such as the Bruges Group and the European Foundation have been concerned not only with shaping debate in the British context, but also with making connections across national borders to groups elsewhere.  Certainly, the main European clearing house for sceptical groups – TEAM (the European Alliance of EU-Critical Movements) – owes much of its existence to the willingness to collaborate between British and Danish elements.  Such fora have been important in sharing practice and information across Europe and taking the British discourse of withdrawal much wider than would otherwise have occurred.  Likewise, the opening of offices in Germany by Open Europe – one of the most prominent contemporary groups – highlights a willingness to push into new areas.  Open Europe’s success, with its (formal) posture as a ‘critical friend’ rather than outright opposition and with its support of extensive research, is typical of the way in which sceptical groups have exploited emergent niches, caused primarily by the hesitation of politicians to lead debate.

Even without such organisations, British eurosceptics have proved adept at taking opportunities wherever they present themselves.  The UK Independence Party (UKIP) – easily the most successful single-issue anti-EU party anywhere – is an archetype here. In 2009, the party threw itself into the second Irish referendum on Lisbon, to much disapproval, especially from those who recall UKIP’s repeated statements about non-interference. Similarly, the use of speaking time in the European Parliament by party leader Nigel Farage has undoubtedly been very successful, both in raising the party’s profile and in setting news agendas.  UKIP’s calculation that the profile, finance and legitimacy that its MEPs bring outweigh their disapproval of the EP’s existence (or at least British participation therein) appears to have paid off for them.

Moreover, the success of British groups in opening up new areas of contestation have in turn enabled groups elsewhere to take the same path.  As the 2009 EP elections showed – and the 2014 elections are very likely to confirm – most member states have elements within them that hold views not dissimilar from those usually associated with the UK.

The temptation here is to draw simplistic lessons: that this is just because British politicians and activists haven’t yet been socialised into the system and its logic; or that some disquiet is always to be expected.  The first idea simply doesn’t stand up to any inspection (see Bulmer & Birch) even before we dwell on the looming 40th anniversary of membership: if not now, then when will it ever happen?

The second is a more structural concern, since it embodies the entire Union’s approach to date to scepticism, both British and beyond.  Just as senior British politicians have tried to keep the wilder voices on the sidelines, so European politicians have told themselves that their broad church is broad enough: witness the Convention on the Future of Europe, where a sceptic text was noted, but totally ignored.

As Neunreither pointed out already in the late 1990s, the EU is not structured for opposition, so even minor criticism struggles to be properly articulated without becoming a systemic critique.  Certainly, the tendency of politicians at both national and European levels to demonise eurosceptics has resulted in the throwing out of the occasional baby with the bathwater.  While it is fair to say that eurosceptics (including those in the UK, who have been at it for longer than most) have not been able to articulate a credible alternative model for European integration, it is also fair to say that some of their critiques of the present system have held up.

The longevity of British euroscepticism – in all its forms – can be seen in one of two ways.  Either the British are ‘different’ and reconciliation is impossible, or we have just not found the right way to bridge the gap.  The very existence of the EU, built as it on the Franco-German rapprochement, shows the fallacy of the first option.  Therefore, euroscepticism should act as a spur to making the Union into an effective and legitimate mechanism for governance.  That will require a change, not only in institutions, but also in attitudes.  

Dr Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Deputy Head of the School of Politics, University of Surrey. After study at the College of Europe and the LSE, his work has focused on euroscepticism, both in the UK and more widely across the EU. He is coordinator of the UACES Collaborative research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction(OUP). He blogs on Ideas on Europe and tweets @usherwood.

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