Undoubtedly, the question of Britain’s relationship to Europe will loom large in the coming general election. If the Conservatives remain in power an EU referendum is likely. A growing cacophony of politicians, the business community and voters are asking to have a say on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Given the chance, voters will have a simple choice; remain in the Community on a basis yet to be negotiated or leave. The referendum should provide clarity on the United Kingdom’s commitment to the Union.
Despite being a member for more than 40 years, the UK’s commitment to Europe has always been somewhat uncertain. Indeed, it is firmly in the “awkward squad” in the pantheon of EU members. Much like a commitment-phobic partner, Britain has entered into the Union with one eye on the exit. The Euro crisis put paid to any prospect of the UK ever adopting the single currency (championed by the Lib Dems) while the EU’s inept management of the crisis has perhaps fuelled the Euroscepticsm that runs through parts of the Conservative Party and the public at large.
British reticence about Europe has deep historical roots, context, emotions and the essence of British national identity all playing a part. Indeed, one could view BBC’s Wolf Hall as a reading of Britain’s relationship to foreign powers and authority, as much as the inner workings of Henry VIII’s court. As an island nation, Britain has always looked to the seas first, and Europe second. This sense of identity became cemented during Britain’s heroic role in the Second World War. The period of standing alone, the last defence against Germany profoundly shaped the nation’s relationship with Europe (and, through sentiment launched a thousand throw pillows and mugs; “Keep Calm and Carry On”, itself). Winston Churchill fully supported a united Europe post war but warned that Britain could not be part of it. Britain had the luxury of opting out. Having fought for the survival of self-determination it was reluctant to later sacrifice it on the altar of European integration.
This mood endured even when Britain joined the then European Economic Community in 1973.Domestic support was not universal. Margaret Thatcher was an uncomfortable bedfellow regarding Europe as a means to an end, and not an end itself. Her successor, John Major inherited a party, reeling after a traumatic “regicide”, ostensibly rooted in divisions over Europe. By the time he left office Britain’s relations with Europe were quite strained. Blair’s New Labour government was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in European capitals. Blair was determined, as The Economist put it “to drag Britain into the heart of Europe” to the point that he was also willing to see the UK joining the single currency only to be blocked by his chancellor Gordon Brown. Europe’s love affair with Blair soured after the Iraq war and never recovered. Nor had the Conservative wounds after Thatcher’s ousting. Bitter infighting over Europe contributed to three election defeats. The Tories would never resolve these differences; the best they could hope for was a suspension of hostilities.
Europe is an issue that is probably incapable of securing a widely acceptable solution. For every loud voice clamouring for an exit there is an equal voice supporting continued membership. Sandwiched in between is a large majority that could break either way.
The question confronting the UK is whether it wants to be at the heart of Europe, and if not what should its position be? Other members may chafe but they are also reluctant to see her leave. Voters, instead of leaving, may want to re-negotiate and approve terms of UK membership. A reasonable summation of the current mood is that many Britons want Europe but not too much of it. Europe will surely accommodate to some extent and offer concessions but the question remains will Britain finally learn to take its eye of the exit door? It seems unlikely; Euroscepticsm has been a part of British DNA for centuries.
By Hannah Dowling, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.