Britain’s relationship with the EU was once described to me as that of a frustrated girlfriend who feels a bit trapped: lots of little frustrations have built up over time, to the point that she feels like she might need a break. What she might really need is to feel like she has a choice again, to refresh the relationship with a new commitment. Sometimes a break, in this case through a referendum, could even be healthy for the long-term relationship.
Britain and the EU: over the past 40 years we’ve been through our good moments and our bad moments together – and we’ve made sacrifices for each other. European leaders have tolerated Britain’s often frustrating sense of exceptionalism and allowed the UK opt-outs for everything from the Euro and Schengen to European social policy. And this hasn’t been one-sided, either – Britain, like any good partner, has made her sacrifices too.
While traditionalist, sovereignty-loving MPs, usually in the Conservative party, have treated our continental amants with suspicion, government ministers have placed their careers on the line to defend the relationship. Margaret Thatcher’s forced downfall was provoked largely by the resignation of her pro-European deputy prime-minister, who triggered a no-confidence vote through a withering speech he delivered criticising her Euroscepticism.
The otherwise sedate man led Denis Healey, a Labour politician, to describe Thatcher’s experience that day as the equivalent of “being savaged by a dead sheep.”
Her successor John Major’s defeat in 1997 to the Labour party meanwhile has been partly attributed to his defence of Europe and the signing of the Maastricht treaty. He famously called 3 members of his own cabinet “bastards” as they tussled with him over Maastricht, and asked his own MPs, “whether you agree with me, disagree with me, like me or loathe me, don’t bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British people.”
We’ve had our good times too. Who can forget those heady Blair years, where in a whirlwind of Europeanism, Blair introduced down-to-earth modern British government to his fancy continent peers. Whilst those of us on the Pol study trip have witnessed the extravagance of French government hospitality, Blair invited Jacques Chirac to fish and chips in a Yorkshire pub, and shared a pint with Berlusconi in the working man’s club of his impoverished northern constituency. And what a great time they had.
Under Blair Britain became an equal partner to France and Germany in the motor-room of European integration, and took a lead with France in proposing further integration in defence and security. It was British diplomats that carved out the agreements which would see EU troops deployed to Bosnia; and an agreement between Blair and Chirac that created what has now become the EU’s system of battlegroups. Blair was even apparently keen to join the Euro, though put off by his chancellor, Gordon Brown, who cautioned over the dangers of a currency union without sufficient economic convergence.
Some of the problems in the British-EU relationship have long-term reasons that can’t be ignored but we can learn to live with if only we can find a way to make it part of our relationship. “Our sense of ourselves as a nation is still so much shaped by the Churchillian moment of 1940, standing alone for freedom when the rest of the continent was either defeated and occupied, or fascist,” Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash told Reuters when the referendum was first proposed by Cameron. Meanwhile, Cameron’s old politics professor told the same paper, “part of the dynamic behind the European Union was to overcome the past. We didn’t feel that need. We’re proud of the past. That’s a great difference in psychology.”
As with any serious relationship, sometimes we’ve had to learn the ways of the other one, and adapted our tastes to that – learned to love each other for who we really are.
And now, after a relationship that has lasted so long it’s started to feel permanent, Britain looks like she’s having doubts. Her partner isn’t as attractive as he once was, and it isn’t clear he still has everything she hoped he could offer when they got together. The EU is embattled with economic and political crises caused by integration policies that didn’t go far enough. Britain feels conflicted. But there is still love. While about 50% of people say they want to stay in, percentages of people saying they feel European varies wildly by age, social group and gender. A full 60% of Briton’s under the age of 35 feel European, but they don’t necessarily love the European Union.
So Continental cousins, please don’t judge us when we go to the polls this summer to vote on staying with you – we (probably) love you really.