Britain and the future of Euroskepticism.
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Indeed, it is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the Community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction. We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.
It was a clarion call concerning European integration—one issued from the very heart of Old Europe—and a fitting riposte to Delors’ provocations.
Thatcher later expressed surprise at the extent to which her Bruges speech had provoked “stunned outrage” in “Europeanist circles.” Delors, for example, had immediately declared the “marriage contract” inherent in the Single European Act to have unraveled. Yet she could have been under no illusions, particularly given that her speech began with the joke that her lecturing on Europe “must seem rather like inviting Genghis Khan to speak on the virtues of peaceful coexistence.” In any event, the British state had openly thrown down a Euroskeptical gauntlet. As Jonathan Collett later observed, the Bruges speech “began the transition by which the Conservatives ceased to be ‘the party of Europe’ in British politics, moving fitfully, by lurches, lunges and sidesteps, to a position now known as ‘Euroskepticism.’ The term itself was invented in the process.” Euroskepticism would, in the coming decades, come to dominate British political discourse, and the terms of the debate over European integration hardly changed since Delors and Thatcher sparred over the merits of the “peaceful revolution” well under way in the summer of 1988.
TWO DECADES LATER, Europe was once again perched on the precipice of a new, albeit less promising, era: one of geopolitical, economic, and demographic decadence and decline. Much to the chagrin of those British Euroskeptics who had hoped Bruges would prove a turning point, integration in Brussels had continued apace, from the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 to the Lisbon treaty of 2007. But ultimately those efforts had done little or nothing to forestall the coming economic meltdown. European policymakers have long been proponents of the “beneficial crisis,” described in one 1975 Commission report thusly: “great things are almost always done in crises,” which are the “occasion of progress, by provoking a crystallisation of latent wills.” Although the British Euroskeptic will could seldom be described as “latent,” there was a definite sense that the impending collapse of the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the wrack and ruin increasingly evident in Europe together represented a beneficial crisis of a very different sort, whereby the British ship of state could at last be righted. What had been woven in Brussels over the decades could perhaps still be raveled out, and the man to do that was the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, the presumptive prime minister in waiting.
In the years running up to the 2010 parliamentary elections, Cameron obligingly delivered to the British electorate a series of “cast-iron” guarantees on European policy. “If I become PM,” proclaimed Cameron during the 2007 debates over the controversial Lisbon treaty, “a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations. No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.” The rising star from Witney likewise called for the abolition of the Human Rights Act—“it has to go”—and its replacement by a new British Bill of Rights that would be drafted without interference from bleeding hearts in Brussels. The tough talk was welcome in Euroskeptic circles, but it meant little if not followed by concrete accomplishments. One of Cameron’s predecessors, John Major, had adopted similar rhetoric, deriding his Labour counterpart John Smith as “Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels,” only to prove disappointingly Euro-enthusiastic on matters like the Maastricht Treaty and the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
Cameron’s European tergiversations began almost immediately. In June 2008, less than a year after his initial “cast-iron guarantee,” the Tory leader acknowledged that events on the continent had made it “almost impossible” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and that “we may have to say, well look, we’re not happy with this situation, here are some of the powers we’d like to have back. But we can’t give you that referendum on the Lisbon treaty because it’s already been put in place across the rest of Europe.” In recompense, Cameron merely exhibited a less than steely determination to “never let that happen again.” Euroskeptics began to suspect what should have been apparent all along: Cameron was a pragmatist, yet another in a long Tory line of reluctant partners with Brussels. This would be confirmed when the Conservatives, having failed to garner a parliamentary majority on their own, entered into a coalition with the openly Europhile Liberal Democrats, a party whose leader, Nick Clegg, had long insisted that Britain was “a European nation from head to toe,” whose “standing in the world is entirely dependent on our standing in Europe.”
Lacking a strong mandate and saddled with a left-of-center coalition partner, Cameron’s government could make little headway against the tides of Europe. Tory efforts to curb the influence of European human rights law over domestic criminal sentencing would be frustrated at every turn by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, tensions over the broken promise of an EU referendum would, on October 24, 2011, prompt a Tory backbencher revolt which required brutal suppression by Conservative leadership. Keen to shore up his right flank, Cameron used the occasion of a December 2011 EU summit to oppose treaty changes that would serve to further centralize European fiscal policy-making. To raucous applause, Cameron thereafter informed Parliament that he “went to Brussels last week with one objective: to protect the British national interest and that’s what I did.” By late January 2012, however, the European fiscal compact was moving ahead, and Cameron was facing a backlash from the left and the right for having cast a “phantom veto.” As Douglas Carswell, a Tory Euroskeptic, put it: “I don’t see how the veto is really a veto if we allow the fiscal union to form, and then find ourselves subject to the EU institutions being used to govern that. In effect we will find that for all the talk of a veto, we find ourselves hauled into this process.” A fleeting moment of triumph had revealed itself as nothing of the sort; instead, it was the whole story of Tory Euroskeptical posturing writ small, encapsulated in the contradictory events over a span of a few months.
Despite the setback of the “phantom veto,” the ever-deepening eurozone crisis has only amplified calls for the long-promised EU referendum. Even the Labour Europhile Lord Mandelson has called for a “fresh referendum,” the better to establish a national consensus on European integration. Liberal Democrats, for their part, appear unfazed by the prospects of a vote, confident as they are that the British populace would balk at the allegedly deleterious effects an exit from the EU would have on British trade, banking, and immigration policy. For the Conservative leadership, regardless of the result, such a referendum would constitute a welcome opportunity to make good on electoral promises and thereby lure Euroskeptics back into the fold, while fervent Tory Europhobes and members of the UK Independence Party can finally sense the long sought-after plebiscite within their reach. And yet most policymakers, including Cameron, are operating under the assumption that a referendum will not actually result in EU withdrawal, but rather in a renegotiation of membership terms and the repatriation of certain competences.
Only a few analysts, including Christopher Booker, have demonstrated the wherewithal to see through this widespread parti pris. The very basis of the European project, in Booker’s words, “has always been the acquis communautaire: the rule that once powers are handed over to Brussels they can never be given back. That is why it is futile to talk of Britain negotiating a ‘new relationship’ with Brussels involving repatriation of powers. It cannot happen, because it would be in breach of the project’s most sacred principle.” Only under the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty can Britain craft a “framework for its future relationship with the Union,” and this can only be done if Britain gives notice of its outright withdrawal. Ultimately, Britain’s decades-old surrender of its sovereignty can only be undone through the most drastic course of action, one unlikely to be backed by a largely Euro-enthusiastic British establishment.
THE UNITED KINGDOM, in this decadent day and age, faces a myriad of challenges, from an unsustainable welfare state to a sharp decline in geopolitical influence. As a result of its effort to maintain influence in the heart of Europe, and to continue to guide continental affairs in a new and uncertain era, it was rewarded with a wholly foreign Community acquis. With an economy weighed down by EU regulations, and a criminal justice system hamstrung by European human rights laws, Britain has little to show for its acquiescence. Yet with its empire a distant memory and its transatlantic relationship frayed, if not quite in tatters, Britain has become, as its deputy prime minister put it, “a European nation from head to toe.” All the while Jacques Delors’ “peaceful revolution” continues apace, spurred on by beneficial crisis after beneficial crisis. Even something as momentous as a British EU referendum, it seems, can do little to stop the “irreversible process” set in motion so many years ago. Europe looms larger than ever, and British politicians from Churchill to Cameron have consistently proven unable to steer events in their nation’s favor.
Pessimism like this is nothing new in the British public sphere; fortunately, it often proves premature. It was in 1694 that a pamphlet entitled Proposals for a National Reformation of Manners appeared on the streets of London and Westminster, in which the Society for Reformation declared: “a thick gloominess hath overspread our Horizon, and our Light looks like the Evening of the World.” In the coming decades, however, that Cimmerian shade would be dispelled, as Britain made unprecedented strides in the cultural, technological, legal, political, and military spheres. At another desperate point in its history, as it approached a daunting war with Hitler’s empire, Winston Churchill would describe the “long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender, of wrong measurements and feeble impulses” that had beset his country. Yet Churchill’s ultimate faith in the “life-hope of the British nation” would not be misplaced, as the events of the Second World War would prove.
Lately, there has been no shortage of “wrong measurements” or “feeble impulses,” as “tides of drift” once again surround a kingdom shorn of its sovereignty. To be semi-detached from Europe is nothing new for Britain; this has been the case since the days of the Gough Map. But it has seldom, if ever, been so adrift as it is today, the self-congratulatory tone of the recent Olympiad notwithstanding. There is at least the prospect of an in-or-out European Union referendum on the horizon, and thus the prospect of a return to the days of settled government, freedom, and reliance on precedent. If it proves impossible for the British to extricate themselves from the European acquis, the evening of the world we once knew perforce will descend a little deeper.
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H/T to National Review Online