Britain and Europe: is it different this time?

Is the UK heading for the European exit door?  Something seems to have changed in the past few months, or even weeks.  The other day Channel 4 News devoted most of its hour-long run to debating the question of if, or how, Britain might leave the EU, and what the consequences would be.  The programme would have been inconceivable even a year ago.  The Observer has had advance notice of a speech to be delivered this week by Tony Blair warning that it would be "a disaster for the UK's economy and its power on the world stage" were we to leave the EU.

It's said that Blair "still hankers after a prominent role in European politics," following his (let's face it, humiliating) failure to become EU president a few years ago.  But whatever ambitions he continues to harbour, he must feel highly frustrated that he needs to make yet again the basic case that Britain is better off inside the EU.  Blair's grand ambition since before he became prime minister was to have the UK fulfil what he once described as its "destiny" as a fully signed-up and enthusiastic member of the European integrationist project.  Instead, during the ten years of his leadership this most Euro-enthusiast of British prime ministers (except possibly for Ted Heath) did more or less what Thatcher and Major had done before him, and what Brown and Cameron have done after him: followed the rest of Europe with a cultivated air of foot-dragging reluctance.  He did, it's true, achieve one grand pro-European gesture by giving up a hefty proportion of the British rebate.  But he was not thanked for it, at home or abroad. 

Blair's Euro-vision was always the stuff of fantasy: apart from the facts of geography, history and language that make Britain look to the oceans at least as much as to the nearby continent, there's the inescapable reality that fervent pro-Europeans like him and Nick Clegg have always been a minority in this country.  The mainstream view of the political and governing classes has been pragmatic, resigned, accepting that a European future was vaguely inevitable (and, indeed, provided tremendous gravy-train opportunities for the lucky few) but not dreaming the dream.  It's completely different on the continent.  Completely.  In virtually every other EU member state, there has long been an unshakeable belief among the official classes, for all their nationalistic manoeuvrings and public differences of emphasis in the moral imperative of an ever-deeper union.  Full-blooded Euroscepticsm, if it even exists, really is confined to loonies, fruitcakes and not-so-closet racists.  That is the big difference. 

There has always been a strong anti-EU current in British opinion, one that has never been reconciled to our membership and has opposed every step of further integration.  Usually a minority view, it has never been a negligible one.   Respectable politicians have argued for it, and governments have seen political value in feigning reluctance in all matter European.  So the question of Britain's membership has never quite been settled.  Or, rather, it has never quite seemed settled.  A feeling of semi-detachment has  infused the British relationship with the rest of the EU from the beginning.  The general atmosphere, I would say, has been one of "We could leave, if we wanted to, but on balance we probably won't".  Such sentiments make "Brixit" at least conceptually possible.  And what can be imagined might just happen.

Nevertheless, it does feel different this time.   Andrew Rawnsley, also in the Observer, thinks that this is an illusion: that the basic facts haven't changed.  He suggests that Euroscepticism might be peaking, or have peaked.  He notes the familiar quality of the debate in Britain - the Euro-sceptics are still, after all, making the same arguments in much the same way.  He argues that when forced to take a firm position the British people have tended, however reluctantly, to accept that it's better to be in than out.   "The most important point about the outists is that they have always lost."  The troubles afflicting the Euro may have put wind into Euro-sceptic sails for the time being, but that (thinks Rawnsley) might well start getting better and probably isn't going to get much worse.  At least, Euro-sceptics can't rely on it getting a lot worse.  Rawnsley also thinks it highly unlikely that Ed Miliband would want to wreck his (possible) premiership by committing to hold an in-out referendum.

 So on the fundamental question, in or out, here is the line-up of forces. On the side of remaining in the European Union: the Lib Dems, the Labour party, an important number of senior Conservatives, the vast majority of business and the vast majority of trades unions. On the side of leaving: a lot of Tories, a few noisy newspapers, hardly any businesses and hardly any trades unionists. That is why I say the outists are unwise to toast victory before the battle has even been properly joined.

What's most striking about Rawnsley's analysis is its Little Englandism.  His article is entirely about the balance of pro- and anti- European forces within the UK.  Britain's membership or not of the EU is, for him, entirely a domestic political debate.  It's about what David Cameron thinks, what Nick Clegg thinks, what Ed Miliband thinks, what the CBI thinks.  This inward-facing view of the politics is what really hasn't changed: even for pro-Europeans, it's all about Britain.  For Blair, too:

Friends of Blair say he believes that the EU still lacks effective leadership and too often fails to promote a "big vision". Instead it too often gives the impression that it is obsessed with arcane, if important, institutional reform. Referring to moves to reform Europe's institutions to end the euro crisis, a source said: "He will say that of course you have to get the politics and economics aligned but this has to be part of a grand plan not a series of incremental changes."

So Blair is passionately in favour of the European Union.  But not, it seems, the EU that actually exists; rather, the EU that adopts his own big vision.  His own British vision, which while at odds with other British visions is still clearly British. 

Actually, whether the UK stays in the EU or leaves is scarcely a matter for British politicians at all, any more.  The EU is changing radically as a result of the crisis in the Eurozone: it is changing in the direction of further integration, and further integration, moreover, on German terms.  Britain is scarcely part of this debate at all.  The new EU that emerges will not be one shaped by or for Britain, and it will not be one that Britain can belong to, whatever political will there may still be among British politicians.  The seeds for this were laid twenty years ago.  It was because John Major had a small majority that he felt the need, for purely tactical reasons, to negotiate an opt-out from the single currency in 1992, and later to promise a referendum.  And, later, because of Brown's feud with Blair, the referendum was not held at the opportune moment in 1997 even though joining the Euro was Tony's dearest wish.  The British opt-out was never intended or expected to become permanent.  But that's what happened; and because the Euro is the key building-block of the new EU infrastructure, the UK has in a vital sense already left.

It doesn't feel like that, which is why the debate here (Will there be an in-out referendum?  What treaty changes will Cameron veto?  Too many Brussels regulations) seems so familiar.  And its familiar outcome (in the EU but grumpy) also looks assured.  But don't be fooled.  In Germany, preparations to deal with British departure are already far advanced.  When Angela Merkel declared the other week that she "couldn't imagine an EU without the United Kingdom," she meant precisely the opposite.  It is because British exit suddenly looks plausible, even likely, that she feels the need to forestall it, in public at least. 

It may still, on balance, be in Britain's interests to remain in the EU.  And it may still, on balance, be in the rest of the EU member states' interests for Britain to remain a member.  But it's a finer balance now than it has ever been; and it's no longer enough.  The real question that is left is this: in the end, will we jump or will we be pushed?


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