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Debates

The UK and Europe

Much heat, no light

Simon Usherwood / Sep 2015

 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There’s a deeply paradoxical situation in Europe today. On the one hand, we have never talked more about the future direction of European integration. On the other, we seem to be ever further from a view of what that future should be.

Indeed, I’d go further and say that we’ve never seen such a lack of constructive ideas about the range of options we might consider. In short, there are a lot of people saying that they don’t like what’s happening, but hardly anyone talking about how we achieve something better.

That’s true of all member states, but it’s particularly so in the UK. You want apoplexy? You got it. You want dismay and outrage? No problem. You want a solution that consists of more than ‘we have to free ourselves of these shackles’? Good luck to you.

The usual explanation for this is that Britons don’t like the EU, whatever it does, so they’re not looking for solutions. That fits nicely with the reputation that the UK seems to have built up over the decades: more concerned with stopping things than with helping out. But that’s a lazy stereotype.

Consider for a moment how the UK has brought positive ideas to the rest of the Union, whether that’s about ensuring effective enforcement and implementation of legislation, improved national parliamentary scrutiny, the emergence of a more effective security policy. If the British government has been difficult at times of negotiating new policy, then it is at least in part because it has taken its obligations seriously and so wants to get things right before agreeing, rather than trying to sort out a mess down the line. The value of that has only been underlined by the Euro-crisis and the difficulty of structural reform.

However, wanting to get things in order before one commits isn’t the same as a strategic vision of where to head. Put differently, the UK has long been strong on pragmatism, but short on knowing what that pragmatism is for.

Again, this isn’t a uniquely British condition: one only has to look at the responses to the increasing flows of immigration to see national political priorities take precedence over any European solidarity. There’s always been a question about how deep that solidarity ever ran, but certainly it was a much thinner rhetoric in the UK than elsewhere. As a result, British politicians – and, by extension, British political debate in general – have been almost completely unwilling to co-opt the rhetoric of Europe to serve some bigger plan (unlike the French, to use the obvious counterpoint).

That might have been uncomfortable, but for a long time it wasn’t a real issue.

Until now.

As the UK finds itself – and I say that advisedly, since it’s more by accident than anything else – on the verge of a referendum on membership, that lack of design, of policy, now becomes a critical issue. There is no grand plan – implicit or explicit – that those in favour of staying in can call upon. Membership isn’t about modernisation, or security, or rehabilitation, as it is in other member states: it’s the least bad of a poor set of choices.

Even this rather grumpy view carries its own dangers. In the months since the May general election, it has been the sceptics and the ‘no’ campaigners who have been most active. Partly this is because they’ve been active for many years now, partly it’s because the ‘yes’ side have chosen to wait it out for present. It would be too harsh to call that complacency, but it does reflect a certain belief in the weight of the status quo, that things will turn out right in the end once people see sense.

Maybe they will, but that’s still not a good way to approach matters. Three thoughts might help guide us from here.

Firstly, complacency is not an option. If we’ve learnt anything from previous popular votes on the EU then it is that the status quo is much more conditional than one might think. Diffuse notions of what is desirable or good for a country don’t stand up well to focused, passionate challenges. Particularly in an era of increasingly populist and radical politics, being the Establishment is as much a weakness as it is a strength.

Secondly, there has to be a recognition that the organisation of Europe is never going to be settled definitively, and so a referendum is only a staging point. Whatever the outcome of the vote, the UK will have make many further decisions about what that outcome ‘means’. That doesn’t mean “we can run the thing again if we don’t like the result”, but it does mean that since we’re here, then we should make the most of the opportunity.

Which leads nicely to the final point, namely there needs to be a debate about what the UK wants from its relationship with the EU, Europe and the wider world. I’m in favour of British membership of the Union, but I’m even more in favour of making that relationship part of a wider policy about the UK’s international relations. The referendum – how ever imperfectly – offers an occasion to explore that in a more thoughtful way than the bumbling through we’ve seen so far. We might not reach an answer, but we can at least try to understand the questions being asked of us and recognise the paths that lie before us. Whichever one we take, that has to be a good thing to do.

Simon Usherwood

Simon Usherwood

September 2015

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