The British problem with Europe

Brendan Donnelly

By Brendan Donnelly

I take as my starting-point the personal position of Mr Blair. I believe that he is sincere in his desire to make the British people feel more secure and more at ease in the European Union. I think, however, that the tactics he has employed to achieve this goal have suffered from two drawbacks, first his willingness to subordinate his long-term Europeanism to short-term political advantage, of which his decision to hold a referendum on the European Constitution was a particularly flagrant example; and second his reluctance fully to accept the existing institutional structure of the European Union and to recommend it wholeheartedly to his compatriots. The first of these drawbacks is wholly unsurprising in a democratic politician who wishes to be reelected. The second, however, represents a specifically British attitude to the European Union and its institutional structure.

Even among those in the United Kingdom who would regard themselves as “pro-European”, there is a deeply-engrained disdain for and even hostility towards the European institutions, in particular the European Commission and the European Parliament. This is partly because they are seen as being in competition with well-established and at least theoretically prestigious British institutions, and partly because the British official and political class has never fully internalised the concept of “ever-closer union”, of which the central European institutions are the motors and guarantors.

Ironically, many British Eurosceptics have a much more profound understanding of the European Union’s underlying institutional philosophy than do their Europhile opponents. Such Eurosceptics know that the European Union’s central institutions are fundamental to its workings, workings which these Eurosceptics usually regard as malign and undemocratic. Their Europhile opponents in this country would probably not go so far in their hostility to the European institutions, but they certainly seem to regard them as at best an unwelcome distraction from their own paradigm of the European Union’s development, which is that of intensive intergovernmental co-operation facilitated by the Commission and commented on (normally approvingly) by a marginalised European Parliament.

In my view, this unwillingness on the part of the British political and administrative elite to engage realistically with the deep underlying structure of the European Union is at the heart of much British popular dissatisfaction with the Union. If their political leaders have not properly explained to them the roles and responsibilities of the European institutions, the activities of these institutions will inevitably appear presumptuous, intrusive and threatening.

It is the clear intention of the British government to argue for acceptance of the European Constitution in next year’s referendum on the basis that this Constitution reflects a specifically British view of the Union’s appropriate institutional development, namely a predominantly intergovernmental one. For all the Constitution’s faults, this is not an analysis which can seriously be sustained. It will be difficult indeed for the government to obtain a “yes” vote in the referendum.

In the event of a “no” vote next year, I find it very difficult to predict what the consequences might be for Britain and the European Union. Almost irrespective of whether the Constitution is adopted, there already exist in the Union strong tendencies towards differentiated integration. Given the many years that seem likely to pass before Britain joins either the single currency or the Schengen arrangement, it is difficult to believe that Britain will be at the forefront of European integration in any foreseeable future.

But I discern no desire in this country to leave the European Union either. The problem is that many voters in this country only wish to remain as members of a European Union constructed along the lines they favour. Mr Blair is trying to make them believe that they can do so, thanks to his restructuring of the European Union through the European Constitution. When the British electorate realise how implausible an analysis this is, it may simply serve to alienate them further from the European Union.

This article was written by Brendan Donnelly, chair of Federal Union and Director of the Federal Trust. He can be contacted at The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. First edition, 14 February 2005.

More information

Federal Trust for Education and Research

About the Author