November 26, 2012
Well over half of British voters now want to leave the European Union, according to an opinion poll that shows anti-EU sentiment is sweeping through all three main political parties.
The Opinium/Observer survey finds that 56% of people would probably or definitely vote for the UK to go it alone if they were offered the choice in a referendum. About 68% of Conservative voters want to leave the EU, against 24% who want to remain; 44% of Labour voters would probably choose to get out, against 39% who would back staying in, while some 39% of Liberal Democrats would probably or definitely vote to get out, compared with 47% who would prefer to remain in the EU (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/nov/17/eu-referendum-poll).
It is not a secret that UK-EU relations have always been very difficult and that United Kingdom has never been a pro EU country. I don’t think that it is necessary to speak about something that is already well known and of public domain, but I want to stress some factors which have led to such a failure in the relations between the European Union and United Kingdom.
A good starting point is the lack of contribution from the UK government in developing a pro European feeling within the country. Moreover, European institutions and most of the Member States have never believed in the importance of having UK as an active member of the European Union, because of the initial position of the country, and here I clearly refer to the country’s position toward the European Coal and Steel Community, despite what Winston Churchill stated in 1946 when he called for the establishment of a United States of Europe (a federalist approach, strictly in line with the thought of Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi). This position was not conceivable, especially after the end of WW II, where the privileged partner for UK was identified in the United States.
Because of this special relations, UK adopted a stand by strategy until 1961, when the country applied for membership, which was granted in 1973, after some opposition from the France government. Two years after the entrance a renegotiation of the terms of British membership was undertaken, followed by a referendum which anyway stated the willing of the population in being part of the European Community. This should have been a pillar in developing an educative path toward the population, in order to help people in understanding the importance of the EU, the possibility for UK to have an active role, benefits of the membership but also constraints.
Now, despite the opportunity for the governments to clearly develop a pro Community approach, they have always preferred and put into first place the special relations with the US. In 1988 Margaret Thatcher made a speech, a very famous one, at College of Europe, in which she underlined the limits of UK position toward the EEC. She stated: “Working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy”. Moreover, she also stressed the importance of different identities within Europe and the importance of having special links with the US.
A good question is whether what she was stating represented population’s thoughts and position toward the European Community. In 1997 Tony Blair began a path of normalization in the relations between the two actors, but it was not successful because of foreign policy issues and because of the support that UK provided to the US (i.e. from Kosovo onwards). Once again the relations were put under serious stress and UK failed in developing a pro EU approach.
Main UK problems regarding the European Union can be then summarized as follows: UK still believes to be an empire and to have that kind of power; UK still believes to be the privileged partner of the United States; UK still believes to have a say in foreign policy especially in the European Union because of Catherine Ashton position. As the three elements concur in understanding the failure of UK in adapting its position in a more complex world , they also do create a single framework to understand why UK is a broken hero: it is not possible to live in the past!
Author : Giuseppe Luca Moliterni