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British Euroscepticism

Now in use world wide, the term ‘Euroscepticism’ was coined in the 1980s by the British media as they reported on the various stand-offs between the Thatcher government and the European Commission. Since then in Britain the term has become associated especially with so-called ‘hard Eurosceptics’, i.e. persons who demand dissolution of the European Union, or at least complete withdrawal of their member state. British groups that are critical only of aspects of the EU (such as the ‘Euro No’ campaign which wants the UK to remain out of the Monetary Union) stress that they do not consider themselves ‘Eurosceptic’. The more radical groups, on the other hand, tend to embrace the term as a badge of honour

In British politics Euroscepticism is evident in individual MPs, (sometimes organized in cross-party pressure groups like the ‘EU Referendum Campaign’), in the single-issue United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and in a host of extra-parliamentary campaigns of which the Campaign for an Independent Britain (CIB) is probably the oldest and biggest. This CIB sticker sums up the ‘hardness’ of their Euroscepticism:

British political resistance to membership by no means started in the 1980s. When the first European cooperation projects were discussed in the 1950s neither of the main parties (Conservatives and Labour) favoured participation. After the UK finally acceded to the EC in 1973, these parties remained ambivalent. In their 1983 manifesto the Labour party pledged ‘to extricate ourselves from the Treaty of Rome and other Community treaties’. In the 1990s the Conservatives moved in a similar direction, culminating in a policy of non-cooperation with the EU pronounced by the Major government.

In Scotland and Wales the political agenda is set by the nationalist parties (Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru) which have moved from a Eurosceptic position in the 1970s to a very much more positive attitude now. If small countries like Luxembourg could be independent EU members, then so could Scotland and Wales. This non-Eurosceptic drive continually forces the main parties to play up their European credentials when campaigning in Scotland and Wales.

In Britain Euroscepticism is by no means limited to the political domain of parties, campaigns or pressure groups. It is also clearly present in the press and public opinion. The Europe-wide polls conducted by Eurobarometer invariably show the British public as least satisfied with EU-membership. Hence it is not surprising that the British press, and the tabloids in particular, regularly plug anti-Brussels stories. In 1963, when the UK could not enter the EEC because of a French veto, the Express opened with ‘GLORY GLORY HALLELUJAH!’. In 1990 the Sun set a benchmark as it attacked the then president of the European Commission, the Frenchman Jacques Delors, with the headline ‘Up Yours Delors’, inviting its readers to kick the French (and by extension the Europeans) in ‘The Gauls’. The aggressive Euroscepticism of the British press is such that the London office of the European Commission has set up a special service to expose the ‘Euromyths’ that they say are peddled by the media on an almost daily basis.

But why is hard Euroscepticism so rife in Britain? Much is made of the supposed ‘island mentality’ of the British, giving them a special wish for independence and sovereignty. This reasoning is temptingly plausible, but is in fact unsustainable. All states treasure their independence. The point is that in the postwar world of ‘superpowers’, the continental West European states saw cooperation as the only way to maintain at least a measure of individual influence and sovereignty. For Britain, however, different options seemed available. After the Second World War the UK was still in possession of a sizeable colonial Empire and Commonwealth, and it felt it had a ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States. Though the Empire and Commonwealth rapidly lost significance, many still consider the Special Relationship a reality, giving the UK another option to exert world-wide influence, next to (or even instead of) EU membership.

The fact that British public opinion is hostile towards EU membership may be explained with reference to the popular perception that the British are not ‘Europeans’ in the first place. Eurobarometer surveys show that the British are not just critical of the EU, but of Europe as a whole. To be British does not necessarily coincide with being European. On the contrary, Europeans often figure as ‘the Other’ against which true Britishness may be defined. The roots of this attitude are many, but go back at least to the time of the English reformation in the 16th century, when Henry VIII broke with Rome. The prolonged periods of warfare with Catholic ‘European’ countries (Spain, France) did nothing to meliorate the popular image of Europeans as undemocratic, dishonest idolaters.

Thus British Euroscepticism is ultimately a cultural issue. At heart it is indeed a question of Euro rather than EU-scepticism. In the 1993 BBC series The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts were not with policies, rules or regulations when she defended her battles with the European Commission. It was, she claimed, all a question of national character: ‘There is a great strand of equity and fairness in the British people. This is our characteristic. There is no strand of equity and fairness in Europe. They are out to get as much as they can. This is one of those enormous differences.’

Dr. Menno Spiering, dep. of European Studies, University of Amsterdam

This article was published in Politeia Newsletter 46 - October 2007

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