A new British attitude towards Europe?

By Lise Herman | 8 February 2011

To quote this document: Lise Herman, “A new British attitude towards Europe?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 8 February 2011, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1016, displayed on 22 March 2023

neuk.jpgLast week, NE-UK presented the EU bill, a new piece of legislation that seeks to redefine the British government’s attitude towards the European project. This week, it is a broader perspective on the evolution of British EU-politics since the last election that is going to be developed. This article follows a conference organized by the Foreign Policy Centre and the European Commission Representation in the UK, which took place at Westminster on February 1rst and gathered Members of Parliament from the three main British parties – the Conservative Party, the Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The debate helped us answer these questions: how can we characterize the British new stance towards the EU? And how does the growing division between euro-pragmatists and euro-sceptics affect the UK’s position in the EU?

To be (a good EU-member) or not to be (a good EU-member)

When one thinks about the new British attitude towards Europe, one is forced to admit that it is relative stability that characterizes British EU-politics. If the EU bill appears as the most striking expression of Euroscepticism over the last few years, it does not define alone Cameron’s new approach to the EU. Several elements need to be taken into account, which show that Britain’s traditional ambivalence – between soft pragmatism and hardcore euroscepticism – has not died in May 2010. A few examples follow.

In the summer 2010, Cameron forcefully positioned himself in favour of a reduction of the EU budget. His position softened a little bit in the second half of the year, as his stance appeared more and more unsustainable in front of growing hostility on the part of the other Member States. Poorer Member States especially saw a reduction of the budget as synonymous with a decrease in aid and cohesion funds. Cameron thus signed, with ten other member states, a letter that advocated for a maximum increase of 2.9% of the EU budget. In December, he joined forces with the French and the Germans to argue that the EU budget should not rise by more than the rate of inflation over the period 2014-2020. Although the British Prime Minister showed that he was ready to lower his claims, his decision not to favour a definite reduction of the budget was however particularly resented at home.

Another point of contention is the UK’s participation in the bailout of members of the Eurozone. While the British refused to contribute to the Greek bailout, they nonetheless gave generous help to lift the Irish risk of default. Negotiations between the European heads of state and government led to an agreement on minor Treaty changes in order to include new clauses on bailouts. Until 2013, Britain is going to be part of the emergency bailout mechanism, a “frustrating” situation as David Cameron described it. After 2013 however, the British Prime Minister made it clear that Britain would no longer “be dragged into bailing out the Eurozone”. Again, the ambiguous attitude of the UK is patent, as it appears torn between a desire to stay isolated and a contradicting sense of the danger that exclusion would represent. As a result, British attitude towards the EU sometimes appears hard to follow: while some members of the Conservative party at the European Parliament decided to leave the EPP (European People's Party) and form their own group, the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists), other British MEPs see the necessity of getting involved in European parliamentary activities. While the UK seeks new alliances and new bilateral partnerships with countries of the northern Summit, it is also careful not to present an uncompromising face in Brussels.

This division in British politics between pragmatists and euro-sceptics also characterizes the Conservative Party itself. The difficulty of the game for David Cameron is that he needs to conciliate two streams in his own party: the Tories who see the EU as a chance for Britain – especially in economic terms – and those who see the EU as a heavy and unbearable weight that Britain has to carry around its neck.

Euroscepticism: a good electoral strategy for the Conservatives?

These internal tensions within the conservative party reveal a deeper problem, that of deciding on an appropriate response to public euroscepticism: the dose of euroscepticism required from the conservatives to satisfy their electorate remains unclear, even to them. That the electoral gain from hard-line euroscepticism is too limited to outweigh the costs of isolation from European politics is the view professed by those who hold euro-pragmatist stances within the Conservative party. Although a self-declared "eurosceptic", conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris remarked during the conference that the EU is not salient enough of an issue to be pivotal in any national election. The shadow minister for Europe, Labour MP David Wayne, went even further, arguing that the British are more pragmatic and rational than sceptical. In his opinion, the EU bill is only "a piece of meat" thrown to a minority of eurosceptics, a move which, considering the limited impact the bill is actually likely to have, defeats even this electoral purpose. In this line, hard-line euroscepticism, professed by part of the Conservative group, is viewed as a risky political strategy by an increasing number of British politicians.

Further down these issues beg the questions of the nature of British euroscepticism, and the willingness of various political parties to act against it. As most commentators recognise, labour has not done much to counteract the rise of eurosceptic views during its 14 years in power. Liberal democrat Baroness Emma Nicholson insisted particularly on the role ignorance shares in this sentiment: greater transparency on the part of government and Parliament, as well as a basic education on EU issues in school, would certainly improve the situation. It remains arguable, however, that greater knowledge would necessarily entail enthusiasm for the EU polity amongst the British public. For conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, euroscepticism has not only nothing to do with disinformation, but is also perfectly justified. It is needless to say that the coalition has no immediate plans for investing in public communication on the EU or changing school curricula on this issue.

The coalition's uncertainties viewed from the continent

According to John Peet, Europe Editor of The Economist, the EU and its members have difficulties coming to terms with this "New" British EU. What commentators dreaded most before last year's general elections was a conservative majority, and the hard lined euroscepticism that would naturally follow. Nick Clegg's euroentusiastic stances, and Cameron's toned down euroscepticism therefore rather pleasantly surprised other Member States at first.

Matters of concern have remained important however.  Arguably, the new government has not passed any crucial test yet, as the EU has mainly been preoccupied with the Euro crisis until now, a matter of little concern for the British. In fact, the lack of involvement of Cameron's government in the fate of the single currency, including the British refusal to participate in the Greek bailout, has not been well received in Brussels. Nor has the EU appreciated Cameron's resolution to secure specific conditions for the EU budget negotiations to come. If the destructive potential of the EU bill for future treaty change and the Conservative's resolution to remain in a separate group in the European Parliament are added to the picture, there are many reasons for resentment to be building up against the "New" British foreign policy. In this light, future negotiations on the EU budget promise to be tense.


We can conclude, with John Peet, that Britain faces a clear risk of being isolated from EU politics if its traditional euroscepticism overrides its traditional pragmatism. The Conservatives' isolation from the EPP in the European Parliament is already greatly affecting their policy-making capacity of influence. If the coalition is unable to make concessions when the next EU budget negotiations come along, similar consequences are to be expected: countries like Poland, Sweden and Austria also feel that they are being disadvantaged by the EU budget, and special treatment for the British will become harder and harder to justify.

In addition, Britain runs the risk of being alienated from its Central European partners in this process. Disengagement from EU politics and the multiplication of british opt outs will have the long-term consequence of weakening the British voice in Europe, therefore diminishing its capacity of shaping an EU agenda which will, overall, still impact British politics. In this case, the price paid by Britain for the conservatives to gain a limited number of eurosceptic votes may clearly be too high. 

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Source photo : choose your way, par valentin d. sur flickr