Britain's Search for a New European Policy

By Elizaveta Gromoglasova

The Credibility Gap

 

The problem of the EU-Britain relationship, one aggravated during the last two years, is not limited to clashes between the national interests of key countries of the European Union, nor to competition between business elites or the frequently exaggerated differences between financial regulation models. Its roots lie much deeper, and regardless of what level the problem manifests at, it all originates in British society's crisis of confidence in its government.

 

Back in 2007, i.e. before the crisis erupted, British opinion surveys unveiled a record low level of credibility of the national government and the parliament, with the 59 and 50 percent distrusting the executive branch and the legislators respectively. Against this backdrop, the 36 percent of Britons inclined to broadly trust the European Union were good news for Brussels. However, their sentiments turned to be much more critical than those in other EU countries, with the average confidence level for the EU-27 sustained at 57 percent. In 2008–2012, the negative trends escalated 

 

 

Many Britons relate the gap between the government and the people to the negative facets of the social relations model implemented by New Labour during their 13-year rule. In particular, they emphasize managerialism, the introduction of market-oriented approaches into social policy, and failure to seek feedback from the public.

 

Naturally, these elements provide only partial answers to the phenomenon of steady British distrust of national government institutions. But they do appear to explain the European case, since all reasonable debates on the advantages of EU membership and the limitations of all other formats of relations with Brussels have been running into the growing Euroscepticism of British society. To understand its nature, we must consider the general problem of a system that has self-perpetuation as its primary goal, which has turned out to be the flip side of the new government models introduced in Britain and the EU in the 2000s.

 

Britons perceive the EU primarily as something technocratic, bureaucratic, dissipating funds, undermining national and cultural identity. The question "What does the EU mean to you personally?" has received not just such answers as "freedom to travel around the entire Union" (27 percent) but also "a waste of money" (31 percent), "bureaucracy" (27 percent), and "insufficient control of external borders" (20 percent). Forty-eight percent regard the EU's image as negative, while a majority of respondents (68 percent) believe that the Union cannot be described as "efficient", and 38 percent prefer the label "technocratic". Fifty-two percent of those polled in November 2012 were dissatisfied with the EU's approach to democracy.

 

The answers to the question of whether the respondents understand how the EU operates are also noteworthy. Only 49 percent of Britons responded positively, which was one of the lowest figures among the EU's oldest members. Spain had the same figure, with only two countries having worse results: Portugal (41 percent) and Italy (36 percent). On the other hand, the newer members boasted majorities understanding the EU's mechanisms (with the exception of the Czech Republic and Hungary). The survey ended up revealing the most Eurosceptic countries and the Eurozone "problem states".

 

The issue of the UK-EU relationship is also one of the gap between the European Union as an institution and the British vision of democracy in Europe. We can see the contours of this view of Europe in the differences in perception of specific directions and achievements of the integration policy. It seems only natural that 80 percent of Britons oppose the Economic and Monetary Union with the euro as the single currency, while 54 percent are against further EU steps towards a federation of national states, and are sure that their country would better adapt to future challenges were it outside the EU. At the same time, 85 percent of the Britons polled agree that EU members should strengthen cooperation in order to overcome the financial and economic crisis, and support the idea that European parties should present their candidates for the post of the President of the European Commission at the European Parliament elections in 2014.

 

The United Kingdom possesses its own specific and constantly evolving ideal for intra-European cooperation. The ruling party and bureaucratic elites continuously develop institutional approaches which are then offered to their EU partners as "ready-made solutions". The British masses also have their own vision of Europe, although more fuzzy and influenced by populist forces. This "public" vision of Europe appears a sort of projection of national conceptions of how democratic institutions should operate onto the EU. The European Union, with its highly convoluted model of democratic legitimacy, manifestly contradicts the British vision of democracy.

 

According to the YouGov survey of February 17-18, 2013, should a referendum take place, 41 percent of Britons would vote to leave the EU, 38 percent would like to remain part of it, five percent would not go to the polls, and 15 percent were undecided. Notably, after the initial part of the question was changed ("Imagine that Cameron's government has developed a new format of relations with Europe and recommends to stay in the EU with the assurances that Britain's interests are duly accounted for…"), the British answers became more encouraging for Brussels, as 52 percent were eager to remain inside the EU and only 28 percent insisted on leaving.

 

Pro-European Forces in Britain: Is There Any Support?

 

According to polls, the EU as a project has lost its legitimacy in the United Kingdom, as British society neither understands nor accepts the Brussels model of government.

 

The Conservatives, Labourites and Liberal Democrats have all underlined the significance of local government for revitalization of the government-society relationship in their 2010 election manifestos, 2011-2012 party conferences papers and during the 2013 local election campaigns in England and Wales. Experts close to the Labor Party insist on the need for officials of all tiers to interact with people in person for at least three hours a week [1]. Ideologists of the leading parties see the renovation of the political system in democracy through "local communities", such that the people can participate in running hospitals and schools, and the "national" can become "local".

 

Currently, the EU political and governance process is developing in an incompatible direction to British domestic policy dynamics. At the transnational level, a request has been expressed for a pan-European debate on Europe's future in order to mobilize all pro-European forces and introduce a "European" dimension to the 2014 European Parliament elections. In this respect, it is worth considering the September 12, 2012 State of the Union address by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. He appealed to the audience to think "about what we could achieve if leaders avoid national provincialism". The plea was followed by practical steps by the European Commission to meet citizens in various European cities in order to stimulate pro-European movements in view of 2014, as well as to examine the potential of different ideas in light of the possibility of a Convention and Intergovernmental Conference on developing a new basic agreement.

 

The European Union has once again commenced large-scale institutional reform. Its December 14, 2012 Summit approved the roadmap for completion of a "deep and genuine" Economic and Monetary Union. The EU is underprepared for the challenge of a reinforced democracy of "local communities". Meanwhile, the British parties are actively working at the local level in an attempt to bring back trust and repair links within the nation.

 

Consequently, the recruitment and mobilization of Euro-optimists within Britain, as well as the basic recovery of a positive image of the EU, seem possible only via pro-European national parties.

 

In March 2013, the ratings indicated growing Labour support. According to the YouGov polls of March 11-12, 2013, 43 percent of respondents would vote Labour, 29 percent would support the Conservatives, and 17 percent would prefer others - this last led by the UK Independence Party, which would receive 12 percent of voters.

 

According to some observers, a situation is developing where rightist and right-of-center voters may choose between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party, while the entire leftist electorate leans towards the Labour Party. This electoral layout comes from the reduction in supporters of Liberal Democrats with liberal social views. It provides Brussels with certain grounds for optimism, because both the Labourites and Liberal Democrats, currently between the third and the fourth place in popularity, remain committed to the idea of a united Europe. However, both parties tend towards significant variation in this respect relating to their internal ideological evolution.

 

The revision of New Labourism and the change of emphasis from the international and global to the national and local have brought some inconsistency to Labour leader Ed Miliband's European policy, and heightened expectations for Britain's role in the EU and its European partners' compliance. Having supported British membership in the EU and the integration project on the whole, Mr. Miliband outlined the priorities for EU reform in his "One Nation in Europe" speech at the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry on November 19, 2012. First on the list was EU budget reform through shifting the emphasis from general farming support to infrastructural projects in the transportation and energy sectors, so that spending on cows would not exceed investment in new jobs many times over. However, effective coalitions for such reform are difficult to create due to the approach chosen by France and its supporters. In this context, the alliance with Conservative backbenchers during the October 31, 2012 vote to oppose the coalition's balanced stance appears to be a populist move to gather more party support.

 

Since the Labour Party is in opposition, its ideas seem utopian, especially that of the preservation of significant British influence on development of the European Union. Their approach also appears quite vague and subdued due to differences between the social aspects of the "One Nation" program taken up by party and the realities of the common market with free movement of labor.

 

The Liberal Democrats, just like many other centrist parties in other EU states, welcome the European integration process, although with a "British flavor". The party is diligently evading the word "integration" in its 2010 manifesto, preferring "cooperation" where Europe is concerned. Stronger public and partisan attention to issue of Britain's EU membership has made the Liberal Democrats formalise their approach to matters of European cooperation. The November 1, 2012 speech of Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Klegg presented a vision that perhaps best reflects the realities of Europe's transnational economic space.

 

That space is acquiring an increasingly distinct nucleus of Eurozone states that have developed a plan for further supranational integration. But there are also EU states outside the Eurozone which nevertheless act as full-fledged participants in decision-making processes. Mr. Klegg defines them as the "inner circle" of the integration system. The common market and its norms form the basis for integration, uniting all EU states and attracting the "outer circle" of close neighbors through various forms of soft power.

 

Reproaching the Eurosceptics for calling for Britain's withdrawal from the EU, Mr. Klegg points to the "democracy deficit", an urgent issue for the "outer circle" states. He believes that they are facing a phenomenon which can be described as "governance spillover", as seen in adjustment of non-member legislations to the EU code, and in the participation of these countries in certain European initiatives. Mr. Klegg calls this "fax democracy", which demands implementation of Brussels instructions with no participation in their development. He also underlines the absurdity of demands to review the conditions of Britain's EU membership and reinstate some of its privileges, correctly noting that this would undermine such political principles of integration as mutuality and adherence to obligations.

 

Mr. Klegg suggests strengthening Britain's position in the European Union by lobbying for EU budget reform, the creation of a deeper common market, and the reinforcement of institutional guarantees for proper protection of national economic interests vis-à-vis the increasingly integrated EU nucleus.

 

The Liberal Democrats' vision of Europe seems appealing by virtue of common sense, since democratic representation in the EU is frequently achieved via sophisticated institutional compromises rather than snowballing reservations and exceptions. However, a position based on recognition of the EU's complex institutional structure is not likely to resonate with the British public.

 

Options for the EU, Britain… and Russia

 

In spite of the significance of both the Labourites and the Liberal Democrats' support of the EU, this factor can only go so far in promoting a truce between Britons and the European Union, as neither Laborites nor Liberal Democrats are able to offer a way to make the nation perceive the European Union as a more democratic entity. Pressed by the Eurosceptics in his own party, David Cameron has suggested a more straightforward prescription for retrieving London's powers, i.e. a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union before 2017 if the Conservatives win the 2015 elections. In other words, the Tory election platform is to request the nation's mandate for talks with EU partners on the revision of British membership.

 

The referendum seems inevitable, irrespective of who occupies Downing Street after the 2015 elections. Notably, rising support for it was visible in a survey by the Fabian Society, a Labour Party think tank.

 

However, the referendum is likely to focus on new terms for membership, which means that Britain will retain its membership either way. This scenario rests on the significant popularity of the pro-European parties, and the very reality of the integrated space of which the United Kingdom is an essential part. According to the February 1-8, 2013 YouGov poll, 79 percent of the public opinion leaders, i.e. influential politicians, officials, businesspersons, and representatives of the media and civil society, support UK membership on new terms, while only 12 percent would like to withdraw.

 

Hence Moscow should build relations with London on the assumption that Great Britain will remain in the EU and maintain all of its advantages, including those for transnational business as based on the country's participation in a common domestic market.

 

1. Wilson J. Letting Go. How Labour Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Trust the People // Fabian Ideas 632. 2012. P. 10.

 

 

Elizaveta Gromoglasova, PhD in Political Science, Senior Researcher at RAS Institute of World Economy and International Relations

 

 

RIAC

 

 

28.06.2013

 

 

 
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