In a context of an economic crisis and with public finances under stress, the on-going round of negotiations over the next EU Budget and the European legislation for the regulation of the financial industry have taken the British debate on Europe to a new level. Europe has too few friends in British politics. The process of EU integration even prompted the founding of a political party claiming to fight for the country’s independence: UKIP was founded in 1993 as a right-wing offspring of the diverse “Anti-Federalist League” – a political platform set up in 1991 with the aim of fielding candidates opposed to the Maastricht Treaty.

Even during the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party has always carefully measured its unenthusiastic support for the European idea and integration, while the Tories are the ones who made Britain European. It took a Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, to start the rapprochement with the European Economic Community, out of strategic interests in the wake of the Suez debacle. It took another Conservative Parliament and Government led by Edward Heath to negotiate British entry into the EU in 1973. 20 years later, the Treaty that provoked UKIP’s nationalist reaction was negotiated and signed by a Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, heir of Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. As a result, the Tories are considered the enemy by UKIP. Today, their pressure on David Cameron and his party is stronger than ever.

Ironically, in spite of all that, the Conservatives have never felt much warmth for the European project and always tried to deny its dimension beyond the Single Market.

Un-European Spirit?

Truly, the UK’s situation in Europe always had something peculiar to it. Is it the geography, stupid? Well indeed, but why should “being an island” degrade into “insularity” – in other words, narrow-mindedness in the name of world-openness? At the heart of Britain’s attitude one may find some delusion of invincibility. Since 1066 when William the Conqueror, the duke of Normandy (and thus French mind you), was victorious at the battle of Hastings, England has repelled every invasion launched by successive continental superpowers – be it the Spanish Habsburgs, Napoleon’s Empire or the Nazis, to name a few. Every attempt at unifying Europe by the tools of arms has failed; sometimes bogged down in the Russian steppes yet each time sunk by the Royal Navy.

Today, as the tools of law are being used to create Europe’s unity, the UK’s idiosyncratic historical resistance to any kind of European order stands once again as an impediment to the continent’s political integration.

Britons have something of an erratic relationship with Europe. Sometimes, like in the 1940’s, they feel so much part of it and are capable of envisaging a political union with their French archrival, presuming that they will cordially snarl at it. When the Treaty of Rome is signed in 1957 they opted out, only to finally jump on the European bandwagon at the first enlargement.

Britain’s horizon is the ocean. “Rule Britannia” is an 18th century patriotic song associated with the Royal Navy and a colonial agenda hardly in disguise. In Orwell’s 1984, the UK is in union with the US and the Commonwealth under the same totalitarian regime, distinct from continental Eurasia. Indeed, the British transatlantic alignment often stands in the way of Europe’s construction.

The general perception, and not only in France, is that London is only an American Trojan horse – a perception duly reinforced by Tony Blair’s servile support for Bush’s Second Gulf War, or when Obama recently declared the “special relationship” subordinate to the UK’s membership of the EU.

Today, as the tools of law are being used to create Europe’s unity, the UK’s idiosyncratic historical resistance to any kind of European order stands once again as an impediment to the continent’s political integration.

But this is a shortsighted vision of history. Washington had from the start of the European project other very faithful allies within the European Community, and the British are by many accounts much more European than American. At least in their political culture. Contrary to Americans and in spite of Thatcher’s reign, national solidarity, government regulation of public affairs, health, education and redistribution public policies, multilateralism and the rule of international law rather than military action, etc., still rank high on British social and political values. Every comparative study of European and American values show how deep the rift goes and where it actually is: in the Atlantic, not the Channel. The welfare state was designed by the UK’s Beveridge report much more than by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Undoubtedly, Britons are Europeans.

Yet, as the possibility of Britain falling off the European ship turns from mere speculation or federalist wild dream to actual prospect, one should ponder the loss. Truly, the European vessel would gain a lot more maneuverability: banking regulation, Financial Transaction Tax, diplomatic and military integration (with smaller capacity though), institutional reinforcement, etc. Were the British hurdle eventually lifted, there are legions of fields in which the EU could boldly advance.

But for all its subtlety, the loss would be real. Parliamentarism, Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, Bill of Rights, secret ballot, welfare state… the British contribution to European political values is beyond measure. In addition, its international weight and prestige brings a lot more clout to the EU as a global player.

From a federalist point of view, a British exit from the Union would be excellent news. From a European, cosmopolitan politically liberal point of view, it’s a depressing prospect.

For a European federalist, it’s a quandary.

“My way or the highway”

Evidently, the UK’s democratic tradition is real, ancient and its respect for the rule of law, pluralism and fundamental rights mirrors the EU’s. But instead of acknowledging the legacy, Britain smugly considers its own tradition as so superior that it refuses to accept that the EU could offer a better way to enforce these values. This is the reason for yet another opt-out sought by the UK, in the field of Justice and Home Affairs this time. After this there might be not much left to opt-out of, except from the Union itself.

Yet, as the possibility of Britain falling off the European ship turns from mere speculation or federalist wild dream to actual prospect, one should ponder the loss.

Last January, this prospect was laid down in a much-awaited speech by David Cameron. But in spite of the drama around it, his address was traditional to the point of dullness. David Cameron merely repeated in his own words what many (with the notable nuance of Tony Blair) said before him: the nation-state and the single market are the alpha and omega of Britain’s relationship to Europe. The long introduction, with some failed attempts at Churchillian accents, on British history and geography and the shared history of European nations is only the usual way to hint at British greatness and its uniqueness.

Typical of the current mood, the obsession with global competition may not be specific to the UK, but instead of justifying a drive towards more integration, it is used here as a reason for a looser structure. In his time, Gordon Brown was even more blunt in describing an EU that was too big to be efficient at defining and implementing policies, while too small to be relevant on the global stage.

But there’s more of course to the EU than the Single Market. And Britain cannot hide from it anymore. While a Brussels-based observer may find Europe’s political integration process too slow, in the eyes of a British Prime Minister the pace continues to accelerate.The problems in the eurozone are driving fundamental change in Europe.[1]

Hence the one big novelty in this speech: the announcement of an “in-out” referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017, conditional on the Conservatives wining the next election due in 2015. In politics, pandering to your base is always an easy play and the reactions from Tory backbenchers cheering him on must have been comforting to Cameron. But it actually shows how worried Cameron is about losing ground, both on the European and the domestic fronts. All in all, yielding to an increasing trend towards nationalist populism in the ranks of British Conservatives, driven by a UKIP rising influence, is first and foremost a sign of weak leadership.

Unraveling the European order?

In fact, the referendum will be held on a new European package, not on the current state of the Union. In the meantime, Cameron hopes to secure a better deal for the UK along the lines defined in his speech – what he calls his “vision for a new European Union fit for the 21st century“.

“Competitiveness, Flexibility, Repatriation, Accountability, Fairness”, the 5 principles for a better deal laid out by David Cameron in his EU speech all point to one single idea: nation-states and their institutions are the one and only legitimate level of action. Constraining its Member States’ movements, the EU is just an overly bureaucratic inefficient structure that is trying to impose harmonisation, i.e. “one-size-fits-all solutions” to very diverse countries and situations, without any democratic legitimacy.

No mention at any point of the European Parliament: national parliaments are the only source of democratic accountability. “It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.” It is traditional misplaced British disdain for what is presently the only body of democratic accountability that reaches beyond the borders of nation states.

Flexibility” is code for “Europe à la carte” and a plea to generalise the practice of national opt-outs. “Countries are different. They make different choices” (about the working time directive, for instance). […] The EU must be able to act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the cumbersome rigidity of a bloc.” Evidently, this would be the enshrinement of intergovernmentalism and the end of any kind of “community method”.

All in all, yielding to an increasing trend towards nationalist populism in the ranks of British Conservatives, driven by a UKIP rising influence, is first and foremost a sign of weak leadership.

“You change or I go!” Echoing some marital dispute: there is a strong chance that a deal between Britain and its partners is impossible.

But what’s to change? Most of the EU regulations that British Eurosceptics don’t like pertain to the single market and environmental policies where the UK never considered opting out.

This classic piece of British Euro-bashing should give reasons for the Europeans to worry. The announcement of 2017 for the referendum is an ominous sign for the next few years in the European debate. As coined by Cameron himself, “over the coming weeks, months and years I will not rest until this debate is won“. London’s partners should therefore be prepared to face an ever more difficult (if possible) UK in every negotiation ahead, with the clear aim to roll back European integration towards a loose free-trade area.

Britain’s attitude is a nervous reaction to the end of almost two decades of ambivalence. It shows that some serious work has indeed started in the process towards a federal Europe.

Roughly every 5 years, Europe enters a period of re-writing its fundamental texts. This cycle is about to begin again. And it will decide the design and kind of federation for Europe, as well as its geography. Because the choices faced by European nation-states will more than ever be a simple alternative between integration and disintegration, passing the British test will be crucial.

Whatever the outcome, the Union we’ve known will no longer be. The work to define what “federation” means is the next challenge for every political family in Europe – including those who made a Federal Europe core to their political engagement.



[1] in Cameron’s 23/01/13 speech – all quotes in italic following are from this speech.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.