“Europe” – as it is known in the British political vernacular – has tortured the UK like no other issue since the 1950s. It has caused soul searching, bickering, U-turns, populism and downright hostility.
Britain’s intense angst over almost every aspect of the European Union has cast the country as a European curiosity. Debates on the Union inevitably contain the caveat “and then there is the British case”, inducing smirks, shrugs of the shoulders and shakes of the head – often at the same time.
The UK is often portrayed as a belligerent nation with a superiority complex garnered from an imperial past. Yes, the UK came with historical baggage. But the dysfunction in this relationship isn’t all one-sided and illogical.
Myths and memory
In the UK, there is little to no coverage of the goings-on in Brussels, and members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are largely anonymous in campaigns and debate. This lack of democratic accountability and coverage has left us Britons peddling in myths which have become the prism through which the EU is observed in the UK.
But let’s start at the beginning: The EU was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was an attempt to increase cooperation and integration between previously belligerent European nations by giving them each a shared stake in the others’ futures. It did so using coal, steel, and neo-liberal economics.
But Britain had a completely different experience of World War II than the rest of the continent. It was never occupied; there was no fascism or communist regime; and therefore the UK has no “Liberation Day” holiday like those you find in other countries acting as an annual reminder of the perils of the fragmented Europe.
“Our finest hour” – as Churchill called on us to remember the Battle of Britain – was a back-against-the-wall dogfight of a nation that was standing alone under siege from across the channel. The idea of the European Union acting as a mechanism for peace is totally absent from the debate in the UK.
The UK never saw the Union as an antidote to old wounds. It doesn’t represent the fresh start for the UK that it does for Italy, France, Germany and the former Soviet states.
There is no phoenix-from-the-ashes narrative surrounding European integration in the UK as there is for those who lived through fascism or communism.
While a new wave of cautious optimism based on collaboration took hold in Europe, Britain was losing its empire. At its height, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, but its decline has cast a long shadow.
To go from the largest empire the world has ever seen to being no more than an equal partner in a multi-country union ultimately signaled the end of the accepted order – of Britain as a global superpower. There remains a lingering feeling among the old guard that just as Britain was great before the EU, it can be great without the EU. A myth – but an enduring one.
The legacy of Thatcher’s Big Bang
Today, Britain has cast itself – or at least its capital, London – as a financial power. Margaret Thatcher’s “Big Bang” unleashed the slick skyscrapers of Canary Wharf onto London’s former imperial docks and flooded the streets with bankers and yuppies.
The UK does not share the political or ideological views of Europe that are prevalent in its fellow member states. For the UK, this is an economic partnership.
It’s a partnership that is feeling the strain. In the 1990s, Black Wednesday left an indelible mark on the British economy and politics. And the decision to keep the UK out of the Euro has been looking pretty inspired over the last five years.
No one can seriously argue that membership in the European Union is not good for the UK economy. But its benefits are covert, underlying and not easily untangled from the vast web that is a modern international economy. Its failings are large, loud and incredibly difficult to ignore.
An easy sell
The anti-European narrative is an easy sell. It’s emotive and painted in broad brush strokes. Being pro-European is more technical; there are subtleties and nuances in the debate that get lost in the headlines and the political noise.
A series of recent TV debates between the most pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats, and the largest Eurosceptic party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), was a case in point. UKIP leader Nigel Farage laced his argument with factual inaccuracies, misplaced accusations and a smattering of xenophobia. But people were in no doubt as to what he wanted and where he stood. Pro-European Nick Clegg, on the other hand, just couldn’t make his point stick.
This skepticism, it should be remembered, is not just a UK phenomenon. Voter turnout is expected to be low in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. There have been 60 years of peace, the Euro looks set to stumble on in the short term, and the EU seems to lack a purpose. It needs to reconnect with people, not just in the UK but in all its member states. It needs to remind people why it is relevant before the UK’s vision of it as a meddling, irrelevant, undemocratic bureaucracy becomes a reality. That would be no good for anyone.
This article was published on The European Magazine before.