The EU and the Roots of British Euroscepticism

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IT is not difficult to provide a list of reasons for the high degree of scepticism about the EU in Britain, and to agree that each of them contains an element of truth. We can point to the fact that the UK finally managed to join the EC (as it then was) in 1973, the very time when the economic 'Golden Age' after the Second World War was coming to an end. The original six members had seen their economies prosper in the 1960s, and put this down at least in part to the EC. Britain faced the first great oil crisis, spiralling inflation and then calling in of the IMF to bail out a stricken economy, all within three years of entry. It wasn't correct to blame that on the EC, any more than The Six--the original members of the Common Market--had a right to attribute their healthy growth rates in the 60s to the EC alone. But it is easy to see why political perceptions might have been otherwise.

Then again we can understand how Britain's imperial past inevitably drove it to see Europe as a narrowing of focus, a drawing down from a world role to a continental one. For the island of Ireland slightly to the West, on the other hand, Europe was a great broadening of focus, because it meant less dependence upon Britain. Hence Ireland became euro-friendly and on the whole (with a blip around ratifying the Treaty of Nice) europhile, while Britain remained eurosceptic.

It is also true that even more than sixty years after the end of World War Two, the impact of that conflict on European perceptions remains profound. For continental Europe, caught in the grip of occupation, occupied people were confronted with an impossible choice between collaboration with an invader or a resistance that might have dire consequences for their families. Collaboration was perhaps an understandable choice, but the consequence was recriminations after the war and a feeling that the institutions of the state themselves had been brought into question. The sharing of sovereignty, which was at the very heart of the first moves towards European Union, was an acceptable way forward when national institutions had been discredited. Moreover, it was a practical way back into the European fold for Germany. Provided she was prepared to give up national control over (initially) coal and steel, she would be allowed to grow (economically) strong again. Pooling sovereignty was an ingenious solution to the dilemma of how to let Germany grow strong again (for otherwise Europe could not recover economically) without her growing dangerous again, as had happened after World War One. She could only recover under European auspices.

None of this had the same impact in Britain. Ever since the famous Low cartoon of the soldier shaking his fist across the Channel in June 1940 with the caption 'Very well, alone!', resistance to Nazi Germany had been seen as a single-handed effort with (eventually) help from the USSR and the US, plus of course considerable contingents from the Empire/Commonwealth. There is no doubt that this still feeds into the British psyche. 'Europe was occupied; we were not' feeds into 'Europe can go its own way; we're different'.

All these arguments have an element of truth in them and have been well rehearsed. But there is another point to be made, which receives less attention and yet is just as important for understanding the hard edge to much British euroscepticism. This is the fact that Britain sees itself as an 'EU in miniature'.

Just like the EU, Britain throws about the 'unity in diversity' motto as a way of holding its different parts together. It likes to point out, for instance, that Black and Asian 'Britons' find this a much more natural designation than 'Black English' or 'Black Welsh', as if 'British' were a naturally inclusive word. Like the EU, Britain wishes to stress that it is not overriding the identity of its separate nations (England, Wales, Scotland and if we take the UK rather than Britain, Northern Ireland) by bringing them together into a single 'United Kingdom', not a European Union but a British Union. …