Who's afraid of the EU? A British response to a British problem

With the EU entering a new phase of integration, has anybody asked where Britain fits in? Why has the UK in general, whether Tory or Labour, almost always appeared scared by Brussels?

"Stat magni nominis umbra" - There stands the shadow of a glorious name. (Lucan, Pharsalia).

One might ask what Lucan's words have to do with the UK's position toward the European Union. The answer is intriguingly complex but comes down to a subject rarely broached in modern European political life: fear.

Long-time considered the isle of euroscepticism - the island fortress of Margaret Thatcher and her budget deficit - the UK does not now seem overly concerned with such negative association, particularly with the monumental steps about to be taken over the future of the European Union with the Convention and Intergovernmental Conference.
The British government's reticence towards, first the Social Charter and then the Charter of Fundamental Rights, voted on at Nice in 2000, coupled with its ambivalent and discordant position on the single currency, makes for uncomfortable bedtime reading for Europhiles in British politics.

Is such behaviour a combination of political factors or is something more sinister lurking in this ambivalence? Is it the attitude of the present government, unchallenged (on EU issues at least) because of its large majority and therefore unpressured to make big decisions? Or perhaps the geo-political honour, as Prime Minister Tony Blair put it in a Downing Street press conference once, of being the "Bridge between Europe and the United States"?

Tempting though these responses might be, they certainly do not provide the full picture to explain British reticence, something that is all the more confounding when we see how UK politicians flex their muscles in the international arena one day, then pout like a spoilt child over the wording of a paragraph the next.

The truth is that Britain is afraid.

We have often spoken about the "island mentality", a phenomenon identified before the First World War, but we have rarely asked ourselves why it continues to hold such sway over British political life.

What motivates political opinion towards Europe is the fear of Lucan's phrase being applied to the institutions of this country. It is a fear engendered by decolonisation and the accompanying loss of power and influence, which is coupled with the sense of anguish and fear of loss of sovereignty that has developed from the collective experience of two World Wars.

Not one family was left untouched by these conflicts and scars run deep in the British psyche.

If we combine these unresolved psychological conflicts, the symbolic and mythological role of the monarchy: a figure that supposedly traverses political persuasions but asserts itself upon the British way of life every time we want to spend a penny, then the British disease seems hard to cure.

As General de Gaulle once put it, there is no historical precedent to the European Community.

Knees start to tremble in British politics at the existence of a political model that has no link to tradition, no case history, no cast-iron promises.

The very notion of European post-history, fuelling the debate over irresolvable differences between the United States and Europe, frightens the man on the street, whether he pays lip service to UK independence rhetoric or not.

Take for example the Sun newspaper's violent lambasting of French President Jacques Chirac's position on war in Iraq and we see how Britain, still comforted by notions of eminence, power and influence, hesitates to throw its weight behind the stalled European engine in times of need.

This attitude - identifiable at the highest level of political life in Britain - tacitly contributes to the kind of slurring of foreign leaders who are, after all, partners in the European venture.

Britain has often been comforted by the status quo, whether it is the Cold War; post-Suez and its special relationship; "justified" military action in the Falklands; or, membership of a strictly economic club of European nations.

This last vision of Europe has reached saturation point, but it remains to complete the single market. Now the debate is complicated not just by questions over deepening or widening but also the fact that EU politics is delving into even more domains of national policy: areas much closer to the man on the street than tractor specifications or fisheries policies.

If we add to this equation of gloom, the sort of fear of radical change that is created by the insecurity of economic downturn, structural unemployment, even environmental issues, then a solution capable of dispersing the haze of fear surrounding British political engagement in Europe is far from evident.

The impending enlargements of the EU also serve to highlight the UK "fear factor".

The lukewarm attitude of the British powers that be to embrace the arrival of the ten new members of the European Union could be based on fears for British interests, such as agricultural subsidies, but the magnitude of changes required to make the EU run efficiently at 25, together with the dilution of its traditional centres of power threatens to reveal the UK's perceived weakness on an international scale.

Its inability to provide the illusion of power and control in EU politics, even though it tries to bask in its own reflected glories of the past, is a serious concern for those seeking to uphold the fading image of grandeur.

So what of the British response to this problem?

Largely it seems to be one of ignorance.

But now, however, there is tacit recognition of the fear. The title of this article - Who's afraid of the EU? - A British response to a British problem - was proposed by The New Statesman magazine and the Foreign Policy Centre (whose President is the Rt. Hon Tony Blair) for a competition.

The question seems to be on the lips of leaders on both sides of the London-Brussels divide - to help assuage the anguish of governors and governed alike, the EU is embarking upon a programme of transparency and simplification.

This is a blessing for all concerned, particularly students of European politics - no longer faced with trawling through a 200-page white paper for a few key sentences.

This openness could now remove member states' capacity for "Brussels blaming" over difficult policy choices and lead politicians to come face-to-face with what they are really worried about.

A demystification of European politics such as is being attempted now could serve to re-assure apathetic and fearful publics alike.

If the UK can overcome its fears of open revolt in the streets at the loss of the pound, or fears over the revelation of its comparative weakness in international politics, then popular support for European integration may ultimately develop within the British Isles.

To avoid others commenting as Lucan did on the ephemeral nature of the European powers, the UK would do well to realise that with the negotiations on the Convention concluded, it cannot afford to miss the boat and risk isolation.

Sooner or later, whether scared or not by the prospect, the government will be forced to take the plunge. Either that or risk being tied to a position that does not truly reflect British interests.

The prospect of the UK turning its back on the continent is a real and ever-present danger.

This prospect alone is far more fearful than a further decline of British power and influence within the European experiment.