Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Britain, the Conservative Party, David Cameron and the EU

If you want to understand Britain’s rather odd relationship with the EU, you could do far worse than read this really rather good overview in this week’s Economist, especially considering its focus on the Conservative party – likely to form the next British government in a little over six weeks’ time.

There are only a couple of flaws (e.g. mentioning a figure of 50% for the number of European laws stemming from the EU, when readers of this blog will be aware that it’s more in the region of 10-30%, depending), and much insightful analysis that tallies 99% with my own views. It also provides one of the best short summaries of the last 40+ years of UK-EU relations I’ve seen.

Below the fold, a few highlights.

Update: It should also be read in conjunction with Charlemagne on eurosceptic think tank Open Europe and the nature of the British press to give the full picture on why the UK is so insistent on remaining utterly ignorant on all matters EU-related.

On Tory (and British) euroscepticism:

“all the signs are that the new intake of backbench Tories will be bursting for a row over Europe. Back in the years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the Conservative Party was divided on the subject, but now it is largely united—in Euroscepticism. Almost the only divide is between those who dislike the EU but think it would be better to stay in, and those who would prefer to leave. According to a survey last July by ConservativeHome, a website, over 40% of prospective Tory candidates favour either a “fundamental” renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership or outright withdrawal. The strength of backbench opinion makes a Tory bust-up with the EU a lot more likely…

“The explanation for such views is to be found partly in the country’s geography and history, partly in its experience as a member and partly in ignorance and prejudice.”

On the reasons for British euroscepticism:

“The average Eurosceptic in Britain has acquired an impression of constant rule changes that always increase the power of EU institutions. This reinforces their existing prejudices, such as the belief that what Britain joined in 1973, and what Britons voted yes to in 1975, was in essence a free-trade area that only later transmogrified into a putative political union. True, the British government did not exactly spell things out (its white paper in 1971 said there was no question of losing essential sovereignty), but the European project, with its promise of ever-closer union, always had an overtly political dimension.

“Making things worse is a profound ignorance of what the EU does and how it works. The mistaken belief that the EU is responsible for as much as 80% of all legislation in Europe… and a lack of understanding of the role of national governments, including Britain’s, in passing EU laws, have fostered the belief that an unaccountable and undemocratic machine in Brussels is somehow usurping the ancient role of Parliament. The media reinforce this belief, especially such Eurosceptic newspapers as the Sun and the Daily Mail (neither of which troubles to keep a staff correspondent in Brussels).

“Ignorance of how the EU works is, of course, to be found right across the continent. But it is deeper in Britain. Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank, notes that Britain is unusual in that “people can get to the top in the media, business and the City without knowing anything at all about the European Union.” Such knowledge can, he suggests, even be a career obstacle. The contrast between Westminster and Whitehall is telling. Parliament is full of people who are proud to have little or no understanding of the EU.”

On the Tories’ approach to the EU under David Cameron:

“The mistake over leaving the EPP was not that the Tories have had to switch their seating arrangements in the European Parliament (although the party has always underestimated the significance of that body in EU lawmaking). Nor was it that the Tories are now tarred by association with some apparent extremists, notably from Latvia.

“The real problem is that a majority of EU heads of government, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, belong to the EPP. This group now holds regular meetings ahead of all EU summits. When it came to choosing a new president of the European Council last November, it was the EPP that pushed Belgium’s unknown prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy. Because of his walk-out from the EPP (which infuriated Mrs Merkel, in particular), Mr Cameron as prime minister would be excluded from such discussions.

“His exclusion will also make it tougher for him to achieve his EU goals. Two things will make these especially tricky. One is that any general opt-outs from social policy or from the charter of fundamental rights would require treaty change. But after the long struggle to ratify Lisbon, most EU countries are allergic to any suggestion of a new treaty in the near future. The second is that the Tories have no obvious bargaining chips that they can play to sway their EU colleagues, who will be reluctant to concede any further opt-outs to a Britain that many consider to be already far too semi-detached from EU policies.”