Being a member of the EU: A UK Perspective
Dr Philippa Sherrington
Department of Politics & International Studies,
University of Warwick.
Extract of a lecture given at Institutul N. Titulescu,
Bucharest, 23 September, 2004.
Although it is the Blair Government having
to manage the EU issue in British politics right now,
the current policy and political position is embedded in
the UK’s relationship with the EU and its minimalist
approach to European integration since 1950, and
especially since 1973. The EU is the fly in the ointment
of UK politics. The European issue has caused
inter-party and intra-party splits over the years, so
much so that successive governments have been forced to
focus upon keeping a lid on these ideological domestic
conflicts, at the expense of developing a distinct
policy approach towards EU membership and promoting a
proper domestic political debate involving the
electorate. The EU is not a left/right or state/market
cleavage in UK politics.
It is often argued that ‘peculiar’ and deep features of
the British political economy help to explain the rather
ambivalent attitudes displayed by political actors
towards European integration. In addition, the symbolism
of Europe arguably has greater resonance in other EU
member states than in UK. European symbols have become
identified with welcome change and of external
reinforcement for domestic political or economic
objectives. Yet, in the UK (and in Denmark) the case for
European policies has to rest on cognitive support – an
appreciation of the benefits rather than affectionate
support for the idea.
Traditionally, it was argued that the UK adopted the
ultimate minimalist approach to integration, hoping that
its stubbornness would dictate the pace for all member
states. Certainly, during the period 1973 to 1985, this
approach seemed to work. Admittedly, the EC itself
lacked direction at this time, adjusting to enlargement.
But British governments seemed quite content, especially
after the budgetary rebates were resolved. Since
Margaret Thatcher, EU policy in the UK has become
entrapped in this framework. There is no coherent policy
position, decisions are taken on an ad-hoc basis,
piecemeal and fragmented in nature.
The UK’s attitude towards EMU is muddled, and a clear
public debate on whether the UK should adopt the euro is
avoided due to the high political risks. On the
development of ESDP, the lessons of 2003 are that
Blair’s attempt to position Britain as an honest broker
and bridge between Europe and America, maintaining a
close relationship with both, without preferencing
either, has not succeeded. Both during and since the
Iraq war, the UK was viewed by ‘Old Europe’ as more
Atlanticist than European, intending to sell American
macroeconomics and welfarism to Europe. Blair’s
willingness to develop and maintain alliances with
conservatives like Berlusconi and Aznar who are also pro
American in their general thrust, was also viewed with
distrust by the UK’s most powerful European partners.
The current position on EMU, and the difficulty that the
UK has in addressing the development of ESDP typify the
idea of the UK being not so much awkward, but reluctant,
trapped in a historically constructed framework of
ambivalence towards European integration.