Reluctant Europeans? Britain and the EU referendum

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features


Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much has changed since 1946 when Winston Churchill boomed in his Zurich speech that ”We must recreate the European family in a regional structure called, as it may be, ‘the United States of Europe”. Out of the ravages of war and genocide, the European Union was stubbornly born.

But in June 2016 Britain will vote in a referendum on whether to leave this European Union. Derided as the awkward partner since it joined the EU in 1973, Britain’s relationship with the EU has long been lukewarm. Like a standoffish party guest munching on the hors d’oeuvres but eschewing small talk, Britain it is assumed, has never fully reconciled itself to true union with its Continental neighbours.

But as the EU stumbles through a succession of crises, from refugees, to Ukraine to Greece, could Britain’s potential departure (known as Brexit) be the final death knell for Europe? Or will Britain ‘#bremain’? And precisely what historical forces lie behind these Eurosceptic impulses?

James Dennison, a PhD researcher in the EUI’s Department of Social and Political Sciences, believes that Britain’s involvement in the EU project has always been conditional and pragmatic in character. While the upcoming referendum may be a response to specific EU policies of recent years, it is also in part the culmination of long-term disengagement with processes of European integration.  “Ever since Britain joined the European Union support has been far lower than the equivalent in other EU Member States’’, he tells EUI Times.

“British membership of the European Union is based on cost-benefit rationale. For the first forty years, Europe was a source of stability; it did a great job of that.  It institutionalized markets, it institutionalized democracy.  The height of British pro-Europeanism was when it was seen that Europe equals business. However in the last ten years, it has been a great source of instability.’’

But untangling the competing thought-strands in British Euroscpeticism is difficult, not least because hostility to the EU is present on both sides of the political spectrum. Though generally associated with a conservative positioning, the rise of the so-called Lexit position (left-exit) reflects the growth of Euroscepticism, on the left in recent years. This camp points to what they see as the economic strangulation of Greece, the rise of neoliberal EU initiatives such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and distant Brussels elites as evidence of the EU’s inherently anti-democratic tendencies.

For the right-wing, the EU has always been synonymous with a loss of British sovereignty and a gate-way to mass migration through the freedom of movement initiative. Like the Lexiters, they also see Brussels as an anti-democratic policymaking arena.

Nevertheless, Dennison affirms that ”left versus right remains a fairly good predictor for attitudes to Europe. The Greek crisis has changed things a lot, but ultimately the left will fall behind the idea [of remaining in the EU]. They are not receptive to anti-immigration feelings. There’s also an instinctive internationalism in the left. They see the EU as the lesser of two evils; it is still less ‘neoliberal’ than the UK.  There are some social protections which come directly from Europe for instance.’’ These social protections include those on human rights and the EU Working Time Directive which limits working hours for example.

But there is the additional dimension of age colouring the sketches of the debate. British Eurosceptics tend to be old and its EU supporters young.  Dennison tells EUI Times, ‘’The biggest cleavage in explaining attitudes to Europe remains age. Young people are relatively speaking, extremely pro-European. Big majorities of the under-30s support European membership. So it’s not written in stone that Britain will remain Eurosceptic forever.’’

Dennison sees this as the result of decades of steady cultural acclimatisation, with young people in Britain growing up immersed in the cultural trappings of European integration. ‘’They’ve had a different life to their parents and grandparents which will leave a residual pro-Europeanism even if as they age, they become more conservative. They’ve grown up with Erasmus; they’ve grown up with EasyJet. They’ve never known Britain outside Europe; they were born in a European Britain. For this reason, I suspect Euroscepticism will decline in the UK.’’

While there are fears that Brexit could signal the end of the European Union as we know it, many contend that rather, it is more likely that Britain itself will be the bigger loser. While the full implications of course remain unknown, Youssef Cassis, Joint Chair at RSCAS and Professor in the EUI’s Department of History and Civilization, believes that Brexit could be hazardous to the British economy and especially its prized financial sector. Cassis argues that Brexit could spark the decline of London as an international financial centre. Financial services currently contribute around 10% of UK GDP.

In the Yves Mény Annual Lecture on Europe’s Financial Capitals since the Early Twentieth Century given at the EUI, Cassis maintained that ‘London’s position is ultimately fragile. The policy of opening up to the world bore fruit but left London very dependent on foreign financial institutions. Paris and Frankfurt have not given up all ambition to supplant London should the opportunity arise.’’

He tells EUI Times, ”There is a risk that France and Germany,  which have centres of some significance in Paris and Frankfurt, want to take advantage of Brexit to reinforce their status as international centres. There has always been a rivalry.’’

Cassis believes that disconnected from the channels of European financial markets and potentially shut out from the European single goods market, Brexit could render London redundant as a global financial hub.  Were Britain to leave, ”as a pure offshore financial centre, detached from Europe, London would be bound to lose some of its importance.’’ Deutshe Bank has indeed reportedly declared that it would move its operations out of Britain in the event of Brexit.

But on the flip-side, ”A Yes [to EU membership] would reinforce London’s position as Europe’s financial centre with a gradual and complex move towards the City being properly backed by the European economy.’’, Cassis adds.

However, attitudes towards Europe in the UK vary wildly according to its constituent parts. A ‘No to EU’ result could provoke a fresh constitutional crisis over the Scottish question. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which seeks an independent Scotland is the third-largest political party by membership in the UK and the largest in Scotland. Crucially, it is also staunchly pro-Europe. If Britain votes to leave the EU, but the majority of Scottish voters vote to remain, it could give the SNP a claim to demand another referendum over Scottish independence. The SNP could therefore use a Brexit vote as a manoeuvring tool.

Of course myriad uncertainties surround Brexit. Economic anxiety and lingering political reticence cloud discussion of Britain’s involvement in the wider EU project. The relationships, economics, financial and political, that Britain would adopt with the EU in the event of a Brexit remain wholly ambiguous.

Likewise, referenda are notoriously volatile political instruments, with their result soften boiling down to variables such as the popularity of the government at the given time, as well as the wording of the question posed. One thing remains certain however; a clean-cut divorce between Britain and the EU looks impossible.

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