“An appreciation of our differences might make an appreciation of what we can do together all the more possible.”
With the unexpected re-election of David Cameron in May, the long-discussed referendum on British membership of the European Union became a reality. Since then, a twin-track methodology has been launched: one part to negotiate with European partners, another to build a public debate in the run-up to the vote itself.
It would be fair to say that all of this is a profoundly Anglo-centric debate. Most other member states see this very much as a situation of the UK’s own making, rather than anything that has been forced by them. As the original ‘awkward partner’, the British have long been unhappy about the process and the substance of integration and this current phase is simply the next chapter in a generally unhappy history.
The thin Europeanisation of British political debate
Moreover, the structure of the British debate has been very inward-facing. Different voices in the UK speak primarily to each other, rather than out to European counterparts or partners. When Europeans do try to contribute, they are viewed with a mixture of suspicion and disdain: why does it matter what some outsider thinks?
In part, this is a reflection of the thin Europeanisation of British political debate. Issues and questions are framed very strongly in a national way, with little consideration of the European dimension, which remains ‘somewhere else’. If there is an external comparator, then it is the US, which provides a language and method of political life that is very distinct from that of continental Europe.
All of this is necessary to understand when approaching the question posed in the title. One of the key challenges facing Cameron (and other EU leaders) is that they see the world in rather different ways, which will make it even harder to reach an outcome that is mutually satisfactory.
A threat to Britishness?
From the British perspective, the debate is one about fairness. Many in the Conservative party (and beyond) feel that they have been somehow tricked into joining a club that has constantly gained more powers, at British expense, both in terms of financing the budget and of losing sovereignty. The politics of the Union, they argue, are not of consensus, but of a homogenisation that threatens the very meaning of Britishness.
Alongside this, they point to a faltering Eurozone and an institutional order that seems incapable of any decisive action. Particularly in trade matters, they argue that a UK working alone would be more nimble, able to negotiate preferential trade agreements with rising economic powers, with none of the trade-offs necessitated by having to get the other 27 member states on board too.
For many European counterparts, this all looks like special pleading. The UK has already secured extensive opt-outs from the system: the Euro, Schengen, Prüm, Justice & Home Affairs. In addition, the budget rebate – even after its generalisation to other net contributors – remains particularly advantageous to the UK, while the auto-exclusion from the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance is also not forgotten. In short, they ask, what else is left to be changed?
Moreover, other member states reasonably wonder why they shouldn’t be doing the same as the British. This is particularly true in the context of treaty reform, which explains why Cameron seems to have rowed back from pushing for this. While arguing that his self-imposed deadline of late 2017 for the referendum means that a formal renegotiation would be too difficult, Cameron has at least had the sense to see that it would probably cause more problems than it would solve, at home or away.
And this partly explains why the perceptions of the situation are so different.
The UK has shaped the EU more than the British realise
The structure of British public debate about European integration has been one largely of indifference, coloured by anxiety about what might be happening to them. In contrast to many other member states, there is not really a sense that – as a member – the UK can shape what is happening. The only options that seem to be presented are to block or to fold: in the longer history of membership those who have sought to play a constructive role, like Tony Blair, are frequently seen as deluded or misguided.
The tragedy in all of this is that the UK has been a leader and a shaper, much more than the British realise. A good example is Margaret Thatcher.
To most sceptics, Thatcher is the epitome of fighting ‘Europe’ and defending the nation. But she was actually much more considered than this, from her signing of the Single European Act to her support for Eastern enlargement. If you take the time to read her famous 1988 Bruges speech – seen at the time as a very strong challenge to the order of things – then you’ll note that all of her five core principles are now very much part of the EU’s work today, from a NATO-led defence to a drive for further market liberalisation.
Appreciate our differences
The British renegotiation and referendum could be an excellent opportunity for all parties to recalibrate their understandings and their rhetoric on European integration. Yes, the UK has particularities that need to be noted and accommodated, since the EU is not a coercive system of governance. However, that can only be done through a mutual recognition (appropriately) of the needs and particularities of other member states. Whatever might be thought by some, the aim of the European Union isn’t to make a new state, but to support and complement member states.
If the referendum isn’t to become just another staging post on an endless journey with no resolution for the UK, then the debate has to change, in both the UK and elsewhere. An appreciation of our differences might make an appreciation of what we can do together all the more possible.
Dr Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. His work on euroscepticism and on British-EU relations has been published in numerous journals and books. He blogs regularly on related questions here.
Pictures: Dave Kellam [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr; private [all rights reserved].