Will the UK ever admit to being European?

Article published on Jan. 30, 2003
From the magazine
Article published on Jan. 30, 2003
The European Union is soon to expand its borders and the debate over the existence or not of a uniquely 'European' identity has gained new impetus. For the UK, however, long-standing ties across the globe mean that acceptance of a 'European' label remains doubtful.

What does it mean to be European? This will surely be a question that more and more citizens of Europe will be asking themselves during the next 10 years as European intergration deepens and the political and economic Union expands its geographical borders to include countries with cultures and societies that previously have been viewed as outside the Western model.

For many Britons, however, a more pertinent question would be 'Am I European?' This is the great dilemma that Great Britain has been struggling with since the earliest incarnation of the modern EU was created and which has been becoming increasingly problematic as successive UK governments have made closer integration with Europe a reality.

The difficulty the UK faces is whether to accept an identity based on geography or whether to forge one based on historical or linguistic grounds; in other words, should the UK promote closer identification with mainland Europe with whom it shares geographical proximity or with members of the Commonwealth and the USA with whom it shares strong linguistic, cultural and historical bonds.

From the very fabrics from which societies are made, it is evident that there are very clear differences between British and continental countries that make a shared sense of identity hard to establish. For example, in legal terms while much of Continental Europe operates under the 'Napoleonic' justice system, British justice is founded on a separate system known as Common Law. The fundamental differences between these two systems can cause almost insurmountable problems in fusing our societies at this most fundamental level, as has been witnessed recently when a pan-European justice system was proposed and subsequently rejected by the UK. Not only does the UK dislike being told to change one of the most basic but important pieces of its constitution in favour or a more 'European' model, it sees little reason to when, outside Europe, powerful, industrial nations such as America and Australia find key aspects of the UK system more than adequate.

And therein lies the central problem with regard to European identity and Great Britain. Differences such as the one outlined above only prove to further demonstrate the ongoing perceived 'foreignness' of the UK's European neighbours in comparison with the perceived shared ideology with great nations such as the USA.

In cultural terms, the UK maintains with pride its strong links with US and Australian society in terms of television, film and music. Cultural trends originating from Commonwealth countries and America almost always arrive in Europe via the UK. In contrast, European trends are very rarely adopted en masse by the UK and, as such, the music, film and cuisine of mainland Europe generally only achieves a foothold in the UK either at the top or very bottom of the cultural scale. Whereas, despite the geographical divide, Britons tend to view Australian and American reality as similar, if not identical, to their own, the realities or life in Germany, Italy or France are either unknown, or viewed as so widely different from the average British man in the street that they are sidelined to the outposts of cultural acceptance.

The reasons for this sense of shared identity with peoples on opposite sides of the world as opposed to those an hour away by boat lie in history.

The bloody creation of a Europe made up of nation states in the 19th century had little impact in the UK which was busy expanding its empire further afield. Any attempts at invasion by foreign powers proved futile and its island frontiers have remained unaltered. As such, a feeling of national identity in the UK is very strong. It is this fact, perhaps, that makes acceptance and even encouragement of a wider European identity hard to accept. Without a strong national identity, a united Europe made up of one people is easier to fathom. If national identity is strong, the need for an additional wider identity is lessened, especially if, as is the case in the UK, the nation is fully supported by allies in powerful places.

The establishment of the Commonwealth after the collapse of the British Empire cemented the shared ideologies and sentiments between the former colonies and the UK. Despite independence, countries such as India, South Africa and even, controversially today, Zimbabwe share aspects of society that have their roots in British society. The Commonwealth positively encourages a shared perspective between Britain and her allies. If a small island such as Great Britain can count on the support of such great nations as Canada and Australia, the importance of forging closer relations with people with whom it has fought relatively recent bloody battles and who, seemingly, share few common ideals, is relatively low. The basic truth is that as far as the UK is concerned it does not need Europe.

A combined sense of dependency encourages a united identity; if nations share a sense of identity and purpose all nations are strengthened, all nations can join forces to profit both economically and politically and stability is guaranteed for all. The UK is not in this situation thanks to the strength of her international allies. The current international political situation illustrates this clearly.

Despite the repeated call in recent years for the development of a common European foreign policy distinct from that of the US, leading possibly to a permanent seat for the EU on the UN Security Council, the current crisis in Iraq underlines the reality. The UK's foreign policy identity remains resolutely tied to America and it would take, I believe, a great error on America's part for that to change. In contrast, France and Germany are presently trying to forge a common European policy. Unfortunately, the two policies differ enormously leaving the British press and public to conclude that the inescapable differences between the UK and Europe are insurmountable; clearly, they hint, the UK's future cannot possibly lie in a community where on such important issues the two sides are poles apart.

The question remains as to whether this situation will change in the future. A new generation of Europeans are being encouraged to forge closer bonds in a way that our parents, and certainly our grandparents, were unable to do. It is important not to forget, amid frustrations at the lack of enthusiasm in the UK for closer identification with Europe, that only two generations have passed since unity and a common identity among Western Europeans, let alone Eastern Europeans, was an impossibility. It is important to remember that in post-war Europe the UK did not forge closer ties with Europe but chose instead to cement its 'special relationship' with the USA.

The UK was neither inclined nor welcome to join the new European community in its earliest years and, when it did eventually become a member, it was purely for economic reasons - the British public was sold a common European economic area, not a cultural or ideological one.

That is not to say, of course, that the situation cannot and will not change. With the advent of schemes such as Erasmus and the increased use of English across Europe, more and more Britons are seeing mainland Europe not only as a place to relax in the sun but as a place to do business. Low cost air travel means that younger Britons are travelling to Europe more frequently than ever before. Universities both at home and in Europe with larger international departments are encouraging UK students to mix with their European neighbours leading to increased dispersion of ideas and cultural trends. In addition, increased anti-American sentiment and support for anti-globalisation movements are forcing younger Britons to look closer to home for a common ideology. In short continental Europe is becoming more relevant to UK citizens.

However, such are the UK's strong political and cultural ties with other powerful nations, it is doubtful whether British citizens will ever feel entirely comfortable with a purely European label. As a country, the United Kingdom is, for now, content to continue with the ambiguity of its position as both a European and a Global nation.