Euroscepticism: Virus or Cure?

Tim Bale wrote of the “etiology of an obsession”. Tony Blair called it a “virus” and said that “the right have got it bad”. Euroscepticism is a disease and, on this analogy, it could kill the Conservative Party. Bale extended the metaphor by describing the Commons rebellions against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992-93 as the “gateway drug” to the Tories’ addiction to the hard stuff of wanting to leave the European Union altogether.

It is a lovely line, and it certainly captures something of the way that Conservatives find themselves divided on Europe – again – despite themselves. But I do not think that it is accurate or fair to imply that the party is in the grip of an irrational impulse.

It may look as if the Tory party is moving rapidly towards more extreme Euroscepticism. In the later years of John Major’s government, he had to plead with his MPs not to rule out the UK’s ever adopting the euro. The definition of a Eurosceptic then was someone who said that they would never agree to joining the eurozone. As the 1997 election approached, it became more and more difficult to maintain collective ministerial responsibility, and to prevent members of the government putting absolute opposition to the euro in their election addresses.

Compare that with the situation now, when one Tory Cabinet minister – Michael Gove – had his private comments that Britain should leave the EU if it cannot change to a purely trading relationship splashed on the front page of the Mail on Sunday. There was no response from the Prime Minister, and no “clarification” from Gove. From enforcing party discipline on policy towards a proposal unlikely ever to be made, the Tories have given up enforcing discipline on the much more fundamental question of the UK’s membership of the EU. Eurosceptic today refers to those people, who used to be a tiny minority, who say that Britain would be “Better Off Out”.

This intensification of hostility towards EU integration has taken place, however, not in some isolated experimentation tank, but in response to changes in Europe. Look at what has happened to British public opinion since the euro crisis became serious – coincidentally at the moment the coalition government was formed in this country.

eurosceptic graph

Source: The British Election Study at the University of Essex

This may not be a particularly considered response. Much of it is probably no more sophisticated than the feeling that the euro has turned out to be a bad idea, an added layer of complication on a deep recession, and something with which we should have nothing to do.

But it is not definitely a wrong response. If the euro survives, it will only be because Germany has managed to create a political union of the eurozone, a union that would have a single budget policy. That is something that the UK would not be part of for the foreseeable future, and it is hard to imagine that the British people would want to be part of it for quite a lot of the unforeseeable future either. The question of what the EU is and what the UK’s relation to it and to its single market is, therefore, a good one to ask, even if it is too early to know how it should be answered.

Indeed, even Blair, who last week repeated his belief in the UK’s European “destiny”, warned against dismissing the Eurosceptic case out of hand. He could imagine Britain outside the EU: “We could create an economy that could operate effectively in the global market,” he said, but we should not want to.

He made the one really persuasive case for staying in the EU and therefore in the single market: that we could not be guaranteed access to it if we left.

“I am very dubious that other European countries would allow Britain to operate like some offshore centre at the edge of Europe, free from Europe’s responsibilities but participating   fully in its opportunities. Any one of those countries within Europe could say no – or non –  and no would therefore be the likely answer. We want to think long and hard before we put ourselves in that position”.

That is true for now, I think. But who is to say, if there is an enhanced core union of the EU in five years time that the interests of the countries in the outer ring would not be rather different?

It could be said, therefore, that the Conservative Party is not falling victim to a form of madness, but that it is adjusting its proper scepticism about the EU to the challenges of the future. It could be that it is not mad, merely ahead of its time.

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John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday @JohnRentoul

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  • John

    You’re absolutely right. If we left the EU the likes of Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and their ilk would close every showroom in the UK and refuse to sell their cars here. The same goes for every other EU product sold on these shores. Starving, in rags. That’s what we’d become to a man and a woman.

  • rdc

    If you were an ordinary person with a child/young person struggling to find work, you’d be only too pleased to get shot of anything to do with the EU. Here we are, a country being opened up to every man and his dog to come and live here; the majority bring no skills other than the ability to milk the welfare system and then send the money home to distant relatives. Employers fall over backwards to recruit the immigrant man or woman who will work for the lowest pay-packet, leaving the British worker—-who in most cases already has commitments and therefore can’t take pay-cuts—high and dry. Races to the bottom in terms of pay are killing work opportunities.
    Our money goes to Brussels to fund French farmers, expensive History of Europe museums and extravagant headquarter buildings. Our laws are merely things rubber-stamped by the UK government, much of it having already been created by unelected bureaucrats across the Channel. Businesses have relocated abroad, using cheaper labour, leaving our own youngsters with the dilemma of either saying goodbye to their families and moving abroad, or staying on and making the best of a bad job.
    England has been eliminated in legal terms as a nation, supposedly awaiting regional balkanisation upon full integration with the Brussels Beast. Everywhere you look, you see the signs of a British nation being diluted by uncontrolled immigration.
    And yet……politicians think the whole EU membership exercise is “in the country’s best interests”. Blair should keep his mouth shut. He was one of the main people to drive this country further towards extinction. Sadly, many people didn’t realise it when they kept voting him in as PM. Now it’s clear for all to see. Inch by inch, the people are being herded into the huge socialist plan; they say that people will accept the new world order either by consent or defeat…..well, we will not.
    Britain has always been a pioneer. So what if we are ejected from, or leave, the EU membership? We will not die. We can live perfectly well without Brussels. We are an innovative nation. Many have said that Europe is a declining market. Therefore why do we want Britain to be part of a declining group? Too many folk are swallowing the propaganda that “we can’t survive outside Europe”. That’s exactly what the politicians want you to believe, so that your vote will be cast for their project, rather than your own freedom.

  • Misterned

    The far too few Conservative MPs who want a referendum on EU membership are not ahead of their time, they are running to catch up to a population who have seen this moment coming for many years.
    The EU was always going to centralise ever more power at the core, away from national governments and place it in the hands of unelected technocrats, plutocrats and form an anti-democratic oligarchy, which would forever remove and change the English people’s historic laws  customs and traditions, removing the irreversible, God given rights and freedoms of free men, and replacing that with “rights” granted by the oligarchy which could just as easily be removed.
    The British people have been happy to ride the train so-far as we could remain independent and still benefit from the single Market.  The British people NEVER showed any sign of wanting to be subjugated to an EU Oligarchy.  Therefore it was inevitable that at some point, as the journey to complete and total EU integration continued, that we would have to be asked if we wanted to “stay on the train” to that destination, or get off it completely.
    We are already at that point, but the liberal, tory and labour leaderships want us to go to the destination, a fully integrated EU.  The conservative leadership lies and claims that they can go this far, but no further.  This is a lie.  We cannot stop the train and remain on it.  It is inevitably headed for the destination of full integration, no matter how many peripheral member states are to be economically crushed by the journey.
    The ONLY viable options are stay on the train, OR get off it and see it leave to head to its destination as we, and independent UK (with or without Scotland) continue on a different, and possibly much more prosperous, or much more poor (depending on what policies an independent UK Government implements) destination.
    Will the UK prosper outside the UK?  That depends upon what policies any UK Government implements.  I believe that if they pursue a radically aggressive, low tax, small government, free market approach, then we can arrange our own trade deals with the rest of the world which could make this country VERY prosperous, I would definitely pursue an economic policy which targets selling to a growing global market (of over 4 billion increasingly wealthy consumers who are becoming more wealthy), in a way which the EU currently prevents us from doing. However, if we pursue big taxing, big government state which STILL tries to depend on EU trade, a shrinking market of half a billion Austerity racked former consumers, then we would be fated to fail.
    But the point is that these few conservative MPs who are genuinely Eurosceptic are not ahead of their time, in reality they are the few who are running to keep up with the rest of public opinion.  The other Europhile MPs are dinosaurs, stuck in the past.