Cameron negotiates a “special status” in the EU only to face revolt in his own party and a tricky referendum in June.
This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron flew to Brussels with much élan to negotiate a deal to reform the European Union (EU). He threatened to take the United Kingdom out of the EU unless British reservations regarding greater political union, welfare benefits to migrants, sovereignty of its parliament, protection of the City of London and its economic interests in the eurozone were addressed. Cameron has returned claiming victory. He says the UK now has a “special status” in the EU. Boris Johnson, the flawed mayor of London, disagrees. Cameron wants to stay in the EU, while Johnson wants to leave. In a referendum on June 23, British voters will decide which one of the Old Etonians is right.
The EU is a strange creature. It began with a marriage of six in 1951. Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Paris to make another European war “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible.” Six years later, these six nations signed the Treaty of Rome to form the European Economic Community (EEC). This community eventually turned into the EU, and the manageable marriage of six has become an infernally complicated one because 22 others have now joined in.
The UK is perhaps the most troublesome member in the marriage. In the early days, the six original members unsuccessfully proposed to it. In a now discredited but pertinent myth, Russell Bretherton, a former Oxford don and a British official, told delegates negotiating the Treaty of Rome that they were trying to negotiate something they would never be able to negotiate. If negotiated, the treaty would not be ratified. And if ratified, it would not work. Bretherton purportedly parted with these memorable words: “You speak of agriculture, which we don’t like, of power over customs, which we take exception to, and of institutions, which horrifies us. Monsieur le president, messieurs, au revoir et bonne chance.”
If only Bretherton’s apocryphal words summed up British attitudes, political life in the UK would be strikingly simpler. Throughout its history, this former Roman colony has had a tortured relationship with the continent. Geographically, this island is a part of Europe. Culturally, its elites have modeled themselves after Greece and Rome. The Grand Tour was once de rigeur for a young English gentleman as a coming of age journey. Politically, it is a different matter. The UK has long looked not to Europe but elsewhere. Its dominions and colonies once spanned the globe. Its interests lay more in India than in Poland.
Vernon Bogdanor, a noted historian at Oxford, points that Britain was an imperial power ruling over a fifth of the world’s surface until not too long ago. This was the largest land empire in human history. It is little surprise that this island nation lived in “splendid isolation” from Europe for most of the last few centuries. It sunk the Spanish Armada in 1588, annihilated Napoleon’s Armée du Nord at Waterloo, defeated Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mighty troops in World War I, and shot down Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain but then retreated to its shores.
Queen Elizabeth II’s magnificent realm has a very different memory and narrative to the rest of Europe. France, Germany and others emerged from World War II with defeat, disgrace and doubt. The UK came out of the war with its honor intact and still celebrates this time as its “finest hour.” When its neighbors descended into the depths of darkness, this green and blessed isle fought for “the survival of Christian civilization” and “long continuity of its institutions” alone.
When speaking about institutions, Winston Churchill was engaging in magnificent oratory. At the same time, the old man was onto something very real. “This sceptered isle” has retained the same political regime since 1689. The UK managed to escape the European revolutions of 1789, 1848 and 1917. It relied on cheap food from its colonies, sold industrial goods in captive colonial markets, and invested its fast-multiplying wealth in far-flung places from Latin America to China. Today, the City of London rivals Wall Street and continues to be the global hub of capital.
The UK’s greatest asset is stability and continuity. Belgium and the Netherlands assumed their present boundaries in 1830. Germany’s current borders date back merely to 1990. National constitutions were drawn up even more recently than European borders. The French Constitution came into being in 1958, the German in 1949 and the Italian in 1947. Spain, Portugal and Greece were under dictatorship until the 1970s. The former communist members only became democracies in the 1990s. These countries are used to making deals and forming institutions. In the UK, this process occurred a long time ago.
Furthermore, the EU is a symbol of democratic respectability for many European nations, including Germany. This is certainly not the case in the UK. Its parliament has been an arena for lively debate and discussion for centuries. The country has been the historic home of those fleeing Europe whether Karl Marx or Prince Metternich. The UK sees itself as a bastion of democracy while many in Britain find the EU plagued by democratic deficit. Hence, the idea that EU rules override parliamentary ones evokes visceral emotion. As Margaret Thatcher famously pointed out, the elected House of Commons could not hand over its powers to a nonelected body in Brussels.
The other countries with such continuity tend to speak English and lie in other continents. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the white members of the British Commonwealth, derive their common law systems, first past the post voting models and parliamentary traditions from the UK. Even the United States follows common law and has a constitution dating back to 1787.
In the UK, affinity with the English-speaking peoples runs deep. In the early 1950s, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden remarked that 90% of letters from abroad to an English village come “from relatives in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and so on. Europe was where their relatives who had died in two World Wars were buried.” It is telling that the UK preens about its “special relationship” with the US while harboring misgivings about its “special status” in the EU.
Despite its misgivings, the UK is unable to escape Europe. Once, it was part of the Roman Empire and then Christendom. Heeding the call of the pope, Richard the Lionheart traveled all the way to the Holy Land to battle Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or Saladin as he is commonly known in the West. More recently, Britain entered World War I for Belgium and World War II for Poland. British upper-classes have long owned villas in the south of France, while those on lower rungs of Britain’s social ladder have been gobbling up properties in sunny Spain. London continues to be the financial center of Europe despite the best efforts of Frankfurt to usurp its place. So, the EU has its charms after all.
In 1947, it was Churchill who gave a typically rousing speech in Zurich, calling for “a kind of United States of Europe.” Although his successors initially spurned the EEC, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied to join it in 1961. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the British application first in 1963 and then again in 1967. For the tall French president, Britain was a maritime and commercial power, “linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines, to the most diverse, and often the most distant, countries.” British euroskeptics agree.
The majority of the UK felt differently. This famously pragmatic nation of shopkeepers lacks Gallic pride and kept pushing to join the EEC. In 1973, with de Gaulle safely out of power, the country got its chance. The UK entered the EEC under Edward Heath, another Conservative prime minister. In the 1975 referendum, 67% voted in favor of joining the EEC after the three main parties and all national newspapers supported this move. This was a time of oil shocks, inflation, unemployment, strikes and power cuts. The EEC held out promises of economic gain that have never entirely been fulfilled.
Right from the outset, Europe divided both major political parties. The Labour Party split in 1981 when pro-Europeans formed the Social Democratic Party. Anti-Europeans led by Michael Foot disagreed with Thatcher, their bête noire, on everything except Europe.
In 1988, Thatcher gave an iconic speech, rejecting “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” Her call for free markets, trade and reduced government intervention has now become an article of faith for euroskeptics. On Black Wednesday in 1992, the pound crashed from the European Exchange Rate. It remains a burning memory, and euroskeptics point out that it was a glorious day in the long-run because it returned control of monetary policy to the UK. A devalued pound enabled the British economy to emerge out of recession and ushered in a period of growth that only ended with the Great Recession in 2008.
Many in the Conservative Party and everyone in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) support leaving the EU. Some of them have imperial hangovers. Others have island mentalities. But euroskeptics have a point. The modern managerial style of European politics lacks leadership. It lacks courage, vision and imagination. No longer is there a place in the European capitals for a Winston Churchill or a Charles de Gaulle.
Cameron has won concessions far short of his claims. He wants to continue the UK’s open marriage with the EU with special lovers like the US on the side. The time has perhaps come when the British can no longer continue to muddle through. There are fundamental questions to answer and difficult choices to make. The referendum, to misquote the Duke of Wellington yet again, promises to be “a damn close-run thing.”
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