CUPRINS nr. 113


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.




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