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Webb Essay Competition 2002 – Winning Essay

Article by Alexej Behnisch

September 15, 2006

Fear is one of the most basic human conditions. Being afraid of fundamental change or seemingly incomprehensible institutions, moreover, is something to be found in almost all historical periods and places. To a certain degree, there is nothing wrong with some kind of basic fear. As long as it remains healthy scepticism, it makes people immune against populist extremism. But Britain’s relationship with the European Union and its predecessor institutions over the last fifty years appears to be no longer in the category of healthy scepticism. Some continental Europeans would even argue that Britons show obsessive scepticism towards the European Union.
Undoubtedly, Britons are among the most eurosceptic citizens in Europe. But nonetheless, the uniqueness of British euroscepticism is often easily overstated. Part of the problem is, of course, that neither politicians nor academics can agree on a good definition of euroscepticism. It would be wrong, for example, to equate euroscepticism with anti-Europeanism. Because it is perfectly possible to feel European in a geographical and cultural sense, but to oppose the European Union on political and economic grounds, it is vital to distinguish properly between antipathy towards Europe and scepticism towards the European Union. And, clearly, most Britons are afraid of the European Union as an institution rather than Europe as a continent.
Another crucial element for defining euroscepticism is to take seriously the notion of scepticism on the basis of substantive issues. All too often, the problem is presented as a stark choice between outright support and complete opposition. However, in the grey area in-between, there are a lot of people who support European integration in principle, but oppose the specific direction it is developing. In other words, they want European integration, but they resent the European Union currently on offer. For that reason, it is futile to ask whether Britons regard themselves geographically as Europeans, or whether they support supra-national integration as a matter of principle. On both counts, Britons are not much different from their fellow Europeans. To suggest, for example, that Britons are eurosceptic because they are more nationalistic, while Germans are denationalised, is mistaken since issues like Anglo-Saxon-style hostile corporate take-overs or ethnically-based immigration laws demonstrate the existence of German nationalism. But the crucial difference is that German nationalism seems to be compatible with the specific nature of European integration. The real question is, therefore, to seek the reasons why Britons – more than others – find it so problematical to combine domestic and European patterns of rules and norms, and why they consequently aspire to a different kind of European Union.
In order to locate the sources of British euroscepticism, then, it is crucial to consider this puzzle in a comparative manner. The reasons why some countries support the existing pattern of European integration can be as illuminating as the reasons why Britain stays on the sidelines. Finally, since almost all attempts to understand European integration face the problem of what is sometimes compared to blind men trying to identify a giant elephant, it is perhaps useful to discuss four general questions of why Britons are afraid of the European Union.
First, how is European integration defined? As any other ‘social thing’, European integration is not a natural phenomenon out there that can be defined objectively. How people perceive and understand European integration has immense influence on the way they react to this process. For the people in most member-states, for example, European integration has clearly a positive connotation of identity since it refers to the guarantee of peace (e.g. France and Germany), the rescue of nation-states after war (e.g. Benelux and Italy), or the enhancement of democracy and development (e.g. Spain, Portugal and Greece). For Britain, in contrast, joining European institutions was associated with national decline and the loss of great power status.
In addition, belonging to European institutions is regarded by most Europeans as reaching out to the world, either because their countries are too small (e.g. Benelux) or were too nationalistic in the past (e.g. Germany). But for Britons, who came from pursuing a global agenda as a colonial power, the European experience was necessarily one of narrowing options and adopting a more inward-looking stance. Likewise, if a number of European countries attempt to define today the European Union as a counter-weight to America, it carries a positive connotation because it is regarded as extra room for manoeuvre in international affairs. For Britain, in contrast again, this is perceived as endangering the ‘special relationship’ with America and thus rather seen as reducing foreign policy options. In general, therefore, depending on where countries were standing before the integration process started, Europeanisation can carry positive or negative identity connotations. No wonder, then, that Britons look differently at the European Union than, for example, Germans do.
Second, what is the basis of decision-making? Whether people agree with a certain mode of integration depends not only on the kind of identity they ascribe to it. Equally important is the overall assessment of their strategic interests within that framework. Put simply, it is more likely to be enthusiastic about the European Union in the case of benefiting visibly from membership than vice versa. For some countries, like Ireland, membership has clear and tangible advantages in the form of regional aid funds. For others, like Germany, tangible disadvantages such as net payments are balanced by intangible advantages such as gaining post-war sovereignty and security. As often, however, any supposedly rational cost-benefit analysis depends on perception. It is thus not only that Britons object to being the second biggest net contributor to the EU budget; but it is the general impression of paying without a reason – because they cannot identify sufficient intangible gains from membership.
However, it is only one side of the coin to know what the results of a cost-benefit analysis are. Perhaps even more importantly, the other side of the coin is to look at who the actors are that formulate and implement decisions in European affairs. In a special Eurobarometer survey in 1996 analysing elite-mass differences in attitudes towards the European Union, for example, one of the most startling results was that attitudes among the masses in Britain and Germany were at an almost identical (low) level. The crucial difference was, however, that Germany’s political and economic elites were significantly more pro-European than their British counterparts.
Almost any public opinion survey demonstrates fairly widespread disillusionment with the European Union; certainly much higher than the ‘normal cynicism’ towards politics within states. But in some countries, like Britain, this kind of popular eurosceptic disgruntlement appears to have greater impact on decision-making elites. Particularly in recent years, for example, referendums about EU treaties in a number of countries have almost always stirred up eurosceptic movements. In the case of Britain, moreover, the binary nature of the political system, in addition to a typically confrontational political culture, opens up space for eurosceptic movements which would not be found in ‘grand coalition’ states like Germany with a strong consensual political culture.
Third, what should European integration achieve? European integration started as a deliberate strategic security project in order to solve the ‘German Question’ and, later on, to establish an anti-Communist bloc. Quite soon, however, a second agenda emerged with the success of the continental European welfare state model. Indeed, in the light of the growth of globalisation in the 1990s, a process that is often perceived as eroding the welfare state, the protection of this European model – mostly defined around distributive social justice and a strong regulatory regime – has become arguably the most important priority for the vast majority of EU member-states.
The dilemma for Britain is obvious: Either Britain continues to follow the Anglo-Saxon model, which accepts only some aspects of the continental European welfare model; in which case Britain would remain an ‘awkward partner’ in Europe. Or Britain abandons both Thatcherism and Blairism in favour of a more continental-style welfare state; in which case Britain itself would have to undergo (again) fundamental domestic change. A ‘third way’ somewhere in the middle may seem tempting from a British perspective. But because most continental Europeans are not in the mood of moving further towards an Anglo-Saxon model, this is not a real alternative.
In addition to this principal dilemma, there is of course the other big issue regarding the overall goal of European integration: federalism. At a basic level, it starts with the apparent linkage that existing federal systems naturally tend to favour federalism at the European level. Nothing tells more about this problem than the different meanings attached to the word federalism in German, where it stands for decentralisation, and English, where it is associated with centralisation. At a deeper level, even if Britons and Germans finally realise that they both aim for subsidiarity, however, the real divide is over the exact type of federalism. So far, the European Union has followed the path of German-style co-operative federalism, which is characterised by overlapping joint-decision networks and a strong regulatory regime at the central level. If at all, in contrast, most Britons would rather prefer a US-style competitive federalism with clear separation of powers and exclusive policy domains for each federal level. To give an example, co-operative federalism would eventually lead to tax harmonisation, whereas competitive federalism would be principally against it. Again, there is no viable ‘third way’, and the European welfare state model is inherently in favour of co-operative federalism.
Fourth, finally, what is the past experience? For quite a long time, Britain’s awkward role in Europe was attributed to the ‘latecomer effect’. Without doubt, it is rarely without problems to join a club with established rules that cannot be changed easily. This is particularly true if there had been an acrimonious debate about the pros and cons of membership. Yet, newcomers such as Spain, Portugal and Greece are examples of a trouble-free entry experience. What is perhaps more important in a long-term historical relationship, however, is the issue of trust. For example, Britain’s attempts to sabotage the early European unification process after 1957, or Thatcher’s fight over the British Budgetary Question in the 1980s, led other member-states to constantly mistrust British motives and perpetuated the image of Britain as the ‘awkward partner’. Regaining trust, however, is a long uphill struggle.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that Britons are more expressively eurosceptic than others. However, as a closer look at those four core questions illustrates, there are crucial cultural, rational, institutional and historical reasons for why Britons are afraid of the European Union. To some extent, the depth of those arguments leads even to the conclusion that British euroscepticism is indeed over-determined. In general, the underlying cause is quite simple: Britons are afraid of the European Union because they are forced to adopt their specific cultural and institutional rules and values towards what emerges as a common European norm which they dislike. Crucially, given that due to specific historical circumstances European integration started as a project around particular continental – perhaps even Franco-German – rules and norms, Britons regard European unification as a process where they have to change considerably more than their continental counterparts. On too many issues, Britons stand alone in Europe. In this sense, apart from protest movements on the fringes, general British euroscepticism is not so much a movement against Europe or integration itself, but rather an expression of aspiring to another kind of European Union.

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