Britain and Europe: Lessons Learned

by Simon Tasso

This year started with a bang, when British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the country could hold a referendum on its EU membership sooner than the proposed date of 2017. A voluntary exit would be the first of its kind. Somewhat similar cases were Greenland, who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1985, and Algeria, which left upon independence from France in 1962. However, a British exit would be the first withdrawal of a member state and raises the question of Britain’s desire to be considered a European state.

The Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party had the largest voter turnout in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, which seemed to reconfirm the recent British dissatisfaction with the Union. However, polls show that the country is split right down the middle with a tendency towards staying. The February 2015 survey from market researchers, YouGOV, revealed that 45 percent would prefer the U.K. staying in the EU, while 35 percent would want their country to leave, and17 percent remain unsure. In the referendum on EEC membership, over 67 percent voted to stay, showing that historically Euroskepticism existed but was not in the majority.

Suspicion towards the European project has existed already at the signature of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Britain sent Russell Bretherton, a middling trade official to observe, not join. Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied to join in 1961 despite opposition. In 1962 labour leader Hugh Gaitskell held a speech at the party’s annual conference, where he warned against losing “1,000 years of history” as an independent state. Britain, however, did finally become a member in 1973 after a long series of disagreements with France. On the day of joining, a BBC article claimed that France wanted to keep out Britain for fear of the English language suddenly dominating the community. However, the official line of Charles de Gaulle was that the U.K. lacked political will.

Differences with France have long accompanied Britain’s EU membership. In the 1980s a personal feud emerged between Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors. Delors, President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, had different views on the Single European Act. He envisioned a full monetary and economic union with an increase of powers for the European Parliament and the Commission. Thatcher, in turn, viewed this as an attempt at creeping federalism in Europe and denounced a “European Superstate” in Bruges in September 1988. In the same year, The Sun newspaper printed the polemic title “Up Yours Delors!” urging the population to vote against the European Currency Unit, complemented by an insulting image.

In a 2013 research on French politics carried out by Oya Dursun-Ozkanca, Elizabethtown professor, she stressed that the French public reluctantly accepted the Eastern Enlargement of the EU, while Britain fully endorsed it. At the same time, the British Government was angered by French reluctance to cut subsidies for EU farmers. The fear of a “European Superstate” remained with Thatcher’s successor John Major, whose government argued for a “wide, not deep Europe”. Not surprisingly, according to a survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund in 2014, the only EU country that would not regret to see Britain leave is France.

Britain’s impact on continental Europe and vice versa is undeniable. It is where the Magna Carta was drafted, the first country to have independent farmers instead of peasants or serfs. Its thinkers, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, and Benjamin Disraeli developed ideas that have formed the understanding of our world such as modern liberalism or a free market economy and shaped our study of philosophy, economics and politics. In Goethe’s 1771 speech titled “On Shakespeare’s Day,” he praised the English poet, saying, “the first page I read of him made me his own for the rest of my life.” What might be more relevant to some today is the fact that it was British expatriates that established the first football clubs in Spain, Italy, France, and Austria among many.

For the Brits, Europe is more than a preferred destination for package holidays. In 1897, the Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury proclaimed that, to guarantee peace, “the federation of Europe is the only hope we have,” a statement with which Margaret Thatcher would have strongly disagreed. The strong emotional ties to Europe are on full display every year on the 11 November Memorial Day, commemorating the traumatic experiences of the First World War, where over 700,000 British soldiers died fighting for the freedom of all of Europe.

A Financial Times online debate between more than 50 of London’s top bankers say a British exit would be disastrous for the U.K. Sir Win Bischoff, the head of the financial reporting council fears that the city would lose a lot of relevance if clients in Europe are hindered by regulations to do business in London. The head of Morgan Stanley’s banking operations highlights the uncertainty of investment and job creation between now and the proposed 2017 referendum. This would seriously endanger the U.K.’s recovery to reduce its deficit. Furthermore, the very vocal British farming Lobby would lose over €4 billion a year in subsidies, with an increase in British food exports due to import taxes. However, it seems that most young people prefer to stay in the EU. In a recent poll, published by The Guardian, an astonishing 67 percent of people aged 17 to 22 opted for the U.K. to remain in the U.K.

Britain has played a key role in forming modern-day Europe. On the surface, it might seem like the former French President was right, when he told Le Monde in 2011 that, “there are now clearly two Europes,” referring to the UK and the rest of the EU. But there is plenty of evidence that British people believe in the EU. In the aforementioned Financial Times debate, bankers have promised not to repeat the same mistakes of the Scottish independence referendum, when they stayed quiet on warnings of the effects of leaving the Union. If Britain were to opt out, it would be hard to get back in. It would be tragic if this were taken away from the British, especially the young, most ardent supporters of EU membership.

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