Why is Britain afraid of Europe?

Article published on Sept. 23, 2002
community published
Article published on Sept. 23, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The British view of Europe is often inexplicable to many of our neighbours. This article hopes to explain some of those British peculiarities, and show that British attitudes really are very understandable under the circumstances...

The subtleties of the workings of the European Union (EU) seem to baffle and mystify all but a very select few of the British population. Yet the average member of public on the continent is at least aware that they are European. In Britain, circumstances have conspired to create a very distorted picture of 'Europe' and the EU. To illustrate, when Eurobarometer polled British members of the public earlier this year, asking 'what are the two most positive aspects of the European Union', 37% answered 'don't know', followed by 18% who answered that there were 'no positive aspects'. Considering the economic benefits of membership, i.e. access to the single market, these answers betray a serious lack of comprehension of the EU.

The historical events that have shaped Britain's rocky relationship with the EU can relatively easily be identified, and have been by many others. However, the feeling that these many factors have brought about in the mind of the average member of the British public is not so simple to trace. The way in which the question 'why are we afraid of the EU' betrays that feeling. The EU is a threat, an outside force, something 'other'. For some reason we forget that we are a participating member of that 'threat'. Once the more concrete historical reasons for the British suspicion of the EU have been investigated, the historical factors that have led to the current British attitude will have to be tackled. For therein lies the real answer to this question.

Historically, Britain has been left on the sidelines of Europe. In 1950, Britain was given but a few hours notice of the Schuman Declaration, which created the predecessor of the Union, the European Coal and Steel Community. The subsequent refusal to join by Attlee's Labour government was expected in Europe. Amongst other reasons - to be examined later - Attlee had just nationalised the British coal and steel industries and could not reverse that decision. Thus the first instance of Britain being on a completely different wavelength to the rest of Europe.

Two French vetoes later and the British joined what was now the European Community, but again with rather different ideas to her partners. The British public seemed to think they were joining nothing but a single market, a replacement for the European Free Trade Area, and this was encouraged if not instigated by the government of the day. In 1975 the British public voted in a referendum on whether to stay in the 'European Community (common market)'. The information issued by the government in its 'yes' campaign focused almost exclusively on trade, investment, and employment. There was no specific mention of the political and social goals of the EEC - the 'ever closer union'. This explains one important element why British people are somewhat afraid of the EU; a simple lack of proper information. Most believed it to be only a market, an economic area. So when steps were taken towards other goals - for example the social charter, the common foreign and security policy - it came as rather a shock to the poorly informed British public. Hence the feeling that 'Brussels' had and continues to take on a life of its own, that it encroaches on British sovereignty.

This brings us to the next key explanation for the British fear of the EU. The ideal of parliamentary sovereignty is central to the British model of democracy. Yet definitions of sovereignty vary, and once again the British idea does not match up with the 'European' idea. That the sovereignty of the people is invested in the Parliament, that the House of Lords is the highest court in the land and that no other body is higher that the Parliament is the founding principle of British democracy. But according to the European idea sovereignty may be pooled with others in order to empower further the individual nation. Unfortunately, the two definitions do not mix well. For many British euro-sceptic parliamentarians, membership of the EU amounts to the destruction of national sovereignty, despite the fact that British parliamentary sovereignty was already a myth as early as 1951, when the European Convention of Human Rights was signed and the supremacy of its principles over British law accepted. Not to mention the fact that in acceding to the EC in 1972, Great Britain also accepted the supremacy of European law.

The loss of sovereignty is dated, yet many evoke it as an upcoming threat - another source of misinformation on the EU for the British public. The impression that we could lose the ability to govern the country makes many Britons afraid of the EU, as it would any other nation. Once again, the root of the problem is one of interpretation. All Member States face this same dilemma, and many of those Member States have much younger democratic traditions, bitterly fought for, than ourselves. But it is only the British who cannot accept that there is any validity in the European definition of sovereignty.

Another popular reason often raised in answer to the question of why Britain is afraid of the EU is something undefinable, usually expressed in terms of 'island mentality' - the cultural element of Britain's distaste for Europe. If any question apart from one on national consciousness were being asked, these ideas could quite probably be dismissed as vague and invalid. However, with the question being more abstract than concrete, these ideas are very important. Here they must represent something real, or they would not be so often evoked. The only way of putting a finger on where these ideas come from is to identify those elements in the British historical experience that make it so different from the rest of Europe. Two particular circumstances spring to mind: the elements of shared language and culture, and the special relationship with the United States; and the fact that Britain was not invaded during the Second World War.

The roots of the special relationship between Britain and the US in its current form trace back to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. At this point, the British government preferred to view its role in international relations through the three circles model, which placed Britain at the centre of the overlapping circles of Western Europe, the Empire, and the US. As the common factor, Britain was at the centre of world politics in a balancing position. Added to this feeling of responsibility for providing a link between those three parties was the fact that Britain, much more that other countries in Western Europe, looked to the US to guarantee the rebuilding and the security of the region. The British then placed their relations with the US above those with the rest of Europe, considering themselves a world actor, not a European one. This aloofness is neatly captured in Churchill's 'we are with Europe but not in Europe'.

When the Americans came up with Marshall Aid as the best way to reconstruct and at the same time ensure peace in Western Europe, making aid conditional on the creation of a common European organisation for the distribution of the funds, Britain began to suspect that perhaps the US valued its relations with other European States just as highly as those it held with Britain. By May 1950 and the Schuman declaration, it was obvious that this was the case. As mentioned, the British had been kept in the dark on Monnet's plan for a coal and steel union. This was at least partly because it was known that the Briton's self-perception would not admit such a plan. Britain, the 'world actor', preferred partner of the US, saw the emerging Europe as a challenge to her status.

The other peculiarity in British history that has contributed to her very singular attitude to her neighbours is a purely geographical accident - what many call 'island mentality'. The basis of this idea is that another State's forces have not invaded Britain for a very, very long time. Of course we have been attacked, but never invaded, unlike our continental neighbours.

The original aim of the EU was to create such interdependence among the European States that another World War would become impossible. Hence the spirit of compromise that still permeates the organisation today. Most States involved still have the subconscious knowledge that the failure of this project could spell disaster for our little corner of the world. Yet the British have never experienced that fear of invasion; such an event is unimaginable. In fact, the vast majority of attacks to our territory have stemmed from our engagements in the security of other European countries. After two World Wars it was perfectly reasonable that the British mentality heard warning bells whenever close involvement and the signature of treaties with other European States was on the agenda. But now those alarm bells have become embedded in the national consciousness. They prevent meaningful engagement with the EU, despite the fact that serious conflict between the States of Western Europe is highly unlikely.

The above is a theory that can be well backed up by Stein Rokkan's conceptual map of Europe, which traces the characteristics of nation-states' development in Western Europe, explaining many modern national phenomena in terms of historical experience. This map places Britain in a peculiar category. Far from original centres of empirical power, quick to consolidate its borders and to unite into one nation the peoples on the island, relatively early religious tolerance (from Elizabeth I)... All of these factors make Britain an extremely private island. The theory is that the earlier and the stronger the State mechanisms developed, the less need to interfere too much in the citizens' lives. Compared with many of our neighbours, the British Central State has little involvement in our day to day lives.

This idea of privacy can be explained through one single event - the suggested introduction of compulsory ID cards in Britain. In much of Europe, carrying an ID card is obligatory. This is not considered strange, or interfering, it is a simple fact of life. In Britain, talk of introducing a similar system raises cries of draconian measures, of an Orwellian big brother. These reactions stem from the fact that Britain is an island, from the fact the central state did not have a large struggle to control us. And so we have become used to being left alone, to no-one interfering. If the British cannot tolerate being told what to do by their own government, it is logical that they do not welcome the EU. The EU means more people telling them what to do.

Thus all the historical and cultural factors join together to prove that Britain is completely different to its closest neighbours. While the States in continental Western Europe by no means share identical histories, they do share many common experiences. Britain is quite apart from those shared experiences, and therefore we do not consider ourselves as part of Europe. When we refer to "European" we do not include ourselves in that rubric. Some of the reasons for that, and for why we are afraid of the EU, have been detailed above: the importance of the relationship with the US and thus the original refusal to join the predecessor of the EU; the unique perception of government and sovereignty in Britain; and the singular path that our history has taken. All of this adds up to Britain seeing things very differently from the rest of our European partners.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is outside the remit of the essay, but I shall throw in my two pennies (or cents?) worth in by way of conclusion. 'Globalisation' may be an overused and ill-defined concept, but simply in terms of the size of the problems we face today, be they economic, environmental, or human, can one tiny island battle away all alone to any great effect?