The unsustainable nature of British Euroscepticism

I can highly recommend investing half an hour to listen to this video of a lecture by Lord Wallace – one of the clearest, most comprehensive overviews of British Euro–scepticism I’ve ever heard – outlining its historical origins and the challenges it poses to the UK government when it deals with the EU, and in particular the difficulties it will create for a likely future Conservative government. 

If you haven’t got half an hour, try reading my quick summary below (I’ve done my best to make it accurate and not put too much of my own opinion in here…apologies in advance to Lord Wallace if I haven’t been as accurate as I should have – but people can also listen to the video themselves.)

William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire) is a Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader in the House of Lords and a spokesperson for Home Affairs and Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and he was speaking at the Irish Institute for European and International Affairs.

Euroscepticism is a complex, tough and widespread sentiment, which dominates the British public debate about the EU…which, however, any government that comes in will eventually have to deal with, as it is not in line with the times and the national interest of the UK.

A Eurobarometer poll last year showed that the UK is the least keen public in the EU towards European integration, with Ireland (which has however meanwhile shifted its stance after another referendum on Lisbon). We knew that already, but what is striking is the fact people have extraordinarily inaccurate and exaggerated ideas about fundamental things – e.g. how much money the UK pays towards the EU budget (people think it’s a lot more than it is).

This year’s expenses scandal has meant politicians are even less trusted in general by the public, and the EU Parliament elections reflected that loss of support. In May 2010, the results of the general elections will most likely also see the rise of independents, and particularly of small or extremist parties such as BNP and UKIP. This is a trend seen in many other countries, and Britain is not alone in this. The Conservatives are having to elaborate their stance on Europe within this context, and in the hope of not losing too much ground to these parties (my comment – but isn’t it the case that the BNP is taking votes away from Labour and not necessarily Conservatives?).

There are, however some positive trends, Wallace added.

Firstly, the the Obama administration is not interested in a relationship with UK separately from the EU, and this was made clear to Conservatives when they visited Washington – when they were also queried about their alliances with extremists in the EU Parliament. So the approach that has been taken to far by successive UK governments, and most notably by Tony Blair, of trying to have a special relationship with the US at the expense of the EU, may not work now.

Secondly, the British sense of national identity is increasingly outdated as it doesn’t take into account so many things that have happened in the past 50 years and even in the past 3–4 years, that considerably change the debate. For example, the debate on the EU is still largely based on the Maastricht Treaty and the social chapter, something that was clear in the reactions to the Lisbon treaty coming into force a few weeks ago – whereas the issues related to the Lisbon Treaty are different. The issues related to the economic crisis have yet to be taken into account by many Eurosceptics – the UK is still seen as a competitive global financial centre, whilst Germany supposedly has an outdated economic model based on manufacturing. We are now however discovering things are not as simple as that – we are in deeper recession then France or Germany who have recovered much faster and better. That fact now potentially alters the essential debate about Europe too.

It’s pretty clear therefore that ANY government that comes in in May 2010 will have to tackle these issues. For the moment, David Cameron does not seem so interested in foreign policy, and has so far only used European issue as a way to manage internal party politics. To an extent, he is “trapped” by the Eurosceptic party and the press and it will be a huge challenge for him to get round this problem when it comes to working within the EU in a pragmatic way. The proposals he has made, than would give primacy to domestic legislation are a dangerous road to go down, not too dissimilar to a road that extreme right wingers have taken in the US against international law. (I would add – given he has made so many good statements on the need to tackle climate change, how on earth will he be able to do that if the UK is isolated on the global scene rather than firmly part of the EU – where most of the policy action is happening?)

William Hague is however different – he has engaged in the past in a lot of anti Europe campaigning but not always in a very well-informed way (my note – his most recent opinion piece on the FT however proves that something is shifting, as his position seems far more nuanced than it used to be. I still don’t agree with him but at least he is sounding more coherent than before…).

ANY new government will have to have some sort of changed narrative to persuade the public that more EU cooperation is in Britain’s interest, whether it’s defence (where shrinking public budgets mean it’s too costly not to cooperate with other countries) climate change or police work across borders.

Wallace left the audience with an interesting final thought – that Cameron is in a better position than any other UK party to change the Conservative’s position on Europe – but there are risks involved including alienating parts of the party and losing votes to UKIP and BNP so how much this will happen remains to be seen.

Max Hastings of the FT also wrote a very illuminating article on why the EU issue is a looming crisis for the Conservatives.

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