Powerful forces are ensuring that the UK will inevitably have to decide whether out future lies with or without the EU writes Gerry Hassan
THE United Kingdom is on the move. Firstly, in how it sees itself in relation to Europe, and secondly, in how it understands and places itself in the world.
Take Europe. There is now a rising euro-scepticism which is very different and more thoughtful, compared to “the swivel-eyed loons” of Tory leadership nightmares, or the retired Colonel Blimp image of Ukip’s unqualified anti-Europeanism.
This more nuanced euro-scepticism is seen in the “Fresh Start” group of Tory parliamentarians, chaired by Andrea Leadsom, and in the likes of Douglas Carswell, MP, and Daniel Hannan, MEP.
Just over a week ago, a milestone event took place in London under the auspices of the think-tank Open Europe. This involved war-gaming the scenarios of possible UK detachment and withdrawal from the European Union.
It brought together senior figures from all the main countries – UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy – and regional alliances such as the Nordics and central European Visegrád group.
All of these contributed to a series of discussions and negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. There was the British authorities’ attempt to renegotiate and repatriate significant powers. This is something Cameron has laid great store by, saying he will do before presenting the results to the people in a referendum.
Such a process opens up all sorts of complexities. There is the European elite’s fear of democracy and rising euro-scepticism across the continent. Then there is anxiety that any radical alterations may have to involve inter-governmental treaty change, thus resulting in referenda in various countries. As in Maastricht, Lisbon and the aborted Euro constitution, this risks running the wrath of voters.
The Open Europe discussions moved on to what happens if the negotiations fail – a UK in-out referendum and the likelihood of withdrawal from the European Union. When this stage was explored, tensions and resentments revealed themselves. One was French Anglophobia – built up by years of British haggling, complaining and trying to put a spoke in numerous European projects.
But there was also insight and longer-term perspective. The Italians and others calmed such attitudes, stating that any Britexit might not, after all, be a break-up for good. For all Britain’s detachment from the European project, there are still sympathetic voices and friends in the former Communist nations of central and eastern Europe.
The British relationship with Europe has always been mostly a transactional one – based on what we perceive we can get out of it, in finances, trade, and economic opportunities.
When Britain joined in 1973, the United Kingdom political classes saw the country as “the sick man of Europe”, and the continent as a place of growth, dynamism and modernisation, with positive lessons to teach us.
Now the opposite is true. Britain has spent nearly 30 years lecturing Europe, invoking the supposed insights of “the British economic miracle” which turned out to be a mirage, and telling the Germans and French that their “social model” was unsustainable.
This goes much further in certain circles. In some Tory opinion, the EU is portrayed as a region in decline and sometimes as a basket case. This despite the EU’s 508 million people and $17 trillion in GDP, which makes it in many accounts the largest trading area in the world.
The British have never really understood Europe. When the UK joined in 1973, the British political classes presented it as much do about nothing, with no constitutional consequences. All we were doing, Labour, Tory and Liberal politicians of the time said, was that we were joining what was then called “the Common Market” and a “trading zone”. Hence no need for a referendum.
That was straightforward self-deception, mixed with an element of wishful thinking. Any reading of the Treaty of Rome of 1957 which set up the original European Economic Community, or understanding of the Franco-German alliance, would realise that Europe was always a political project.
There are no precedents for what could happen with the UK and EU. There have been two withdrawals already of territories which were members of the club. The first was Algeria in 1962 (which was part of the French Union) and the second, Greenland in 1983 – which voted in a referendum to withdraw despite being an autonomous country which is not fully independent from Denmark.
There are echoes of the Scottish debate in some of this. The emphasis on money, risk and uncertainty indicates that in both the Scottish and UK/European relationships, emotion and heart and soul seem to be in short supply. They are instrumental, pragmatic alliances without gut, instinctual connection which reveals their long-term weakness.
The Scottish and European debates are related in other ways. The Britexit discussions took cognisance that a UK without Scotland – the rUK rump – would be a diminished UK with less prestige, influence and bargaining power, and would potentially act accordingly.
Then there is the changing nature of how Britain sees and understands itself domestically and internationally. The UK has never been, for all its rhetoric, a unitary state of one omnipotent central power, otherwise how could Scotland’s special status and autonomy be preserved through 300 years of union?
The UK has its problems, but they are ones of constantly adapting, evolving and changing. At the moment, the UK is fragmenting into a set of devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – a powerful London region and world city, and a still silent, undemocratically run England.
This relates to how the UK political classes see the future of this country. Tory politicians eulogise the prospect of the UK as a buccaneering, globalising, trading nation, which breaks free from European shackles and bureaucracy. Labour politicians show unease about the whole subject, unwilling even to commit to a referendum.
Finally, beyond what happens in the Scottish and eventual UK European votes, the unions will never be the same again. The Scottish vote next year will be an act of collective self-government whatever the result, and whether the UK remains in the EU or leaves, the parameters of debate are between a semi-detached UK and completely detached UK.
People once doubted there would ever be an independence referendum and there soon will be. Irrespective of the result of the next UK election, Britain is heading inexorably towards a vote on its future with Europe.