The UK’s EU problem

The UK’s EU problem

When David Cameron stood at the House of Commons dispatch box on 12 December to defend his decision to opt out of the EU plan for closer fiscal union to prop up the Euro, it aroused all kinds of echoes.

To non-Conservatives, it seemed a reprise of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher convulsed European politics by attacking dirigisme and seeking to preserve UK national sovereignty (paradoxically while promoting globalisation). This reminder was discomfiting when associated with David Cameron, who is (or was) thought to be a non ‘nasty’ Tory, one so ‘nice’ that the Liberal Democrats were willing to ally themselves with his party. The events have revived overripe rhetoric about Britain ‘being isolated in Europe’ and ‘the same old Tories’.

For Britain’s powerful Eurosceptic lobby, both within and outside the Conservative Party, such echoes of Thatcher are gratifying – and even evoke a misty folk-memory of Britain “standing alone” in 1940 (as if Hitler and Merkel are really comparable). Both sides have seen precisely what they wanted to see. Yet Cameron had made the only move that was open to him.

The financial sector is under a cloud because of its myopia and greed – the fruits of 1980s liberalization which removed structural and ‘gentlemanly’ cultural constraints. But it is also indispensable to the British economy. Cameron therefore needed to defend its freedom of action. Other European powers make exceptions for particular sectors – for example, France and her farmers – so why shouldn’t one of the EU’s few net contributors (£9.2 billion in 2010) be permitted to do the same? What is the point of having a veto if one never uses it? Strong states surely have rights too.

The proposed changes were also about much more than just the financial sector. If Britain had agreed, she would have found herself bound even more closely to the fate of the Euro, and would have been constrained to pay more into the European Commission’s Euro support fund – on top of existing IMF commitments earmarked for that purpose. It is unreasonable for Eurozone members to expect a non-zone member to help them out of the mess they have created for themselves. It is all very well to speak of financial stringency now, but this should have been taken into consideration when the Euro was launched.

Cameron also had pressing political considerations – namely an urgent need to placate restive backbench Tory MPs. It is to be hoped that this boost to their morale will not have the effect of obviating future displays of independence. This is, after all, a holding action rather than a  repatriation of powers or a referendum on EU membership. The global economic situation is too febrile for the government to pursue large-scale political reforms of this kind – especially given that it is a less than cohesive coalition (although the Liberal Democrats will not bring down the government, for fear of electoral wipe-out in the subsequent elections). The financial markets, big business and of course Britain’s American ‘ally’ would also oppose attempts at renegotiation.

Beneath these manoeuvres lie un-held debates. What is ‘Europe’? And if there is a single, definable Europe, is the EU synonymous or coterminous with what De Gaulle called this “certain idea”?

The short answer to an admittedly complex question is that Europe is a cultural entity to which Britain belongs, a complex blend of influences overlaying marked genetic consanguinity – Celtic, Germanic and Slavic folk cultures, Greek and Roman classicism and then several varieties of Christianity, all overlaid with the cultural residuum of the Enlightenment. Europe’s constituent countries are all completely different, and are furthermore divided by history, yet in all one can find traces of a common culture reflected in custom, law, literature and landscape. This relationship implies that there ought to be cooperation between European states on matters of common concern, especially as the future world seems likely to be governed by regional blocs rather than by individual states. Yet national and local freedoms and identities should also be cherished.

The EU on the other hand offers the worst of all possible options – insisting on ever more intrusive union and the downward homogenization of all identities, while refusing to recognize Europe’s special corporate character, much less defend it. Their Europe is a bland consommé of chimerical concepts like ‘equality’, ‘tolerance’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘free markets’ which in a ruthless world are the geopolitical equivalent of opening one’s veins. It is therefore entirely consistent to be pro-European, yet anti-European Union.

The British Eurosceptic right is correct to reject the Euro and entirely justified in seeking to claw back powers given away by previous administrations for no good reason. But they should not resort to cheap jingoism to achieve these laudable aims, or Schadenfreude at the spectacle of smaller countries buckling under the economic strain. They should remember that despite Europe’s long and divisive history, Britain is nevertheless part of that wider civilization – and likely to share in its fate.

Derek Turner, 14 December 2011


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