The Continentalist: Getting the U.K. Off the Sidelines in Europe

By Ulrike Guérot, on , Column

A plurality of Britons would like to leave the European Union if they could, with 48 percent supporting an EU exit against just 31 percent who would prefer to stay. However, most of them -- 63 percent -- don’t think this will happen. That’s perhaps the only optimistic figure of a recently released Chatham House and YouGov poll, showing that Britons understand and are resigned to the key consequence of globalization: Cooperation and multilateralism trump bilateralism or “going it alone.” Thus, the U.K. is not yet completely a lost cause for continental Europe.

But it is close, as the rest of this devastating poll on British sentiments toward Europe demonstrates. Of course, this is not surprising, given the state of British public discourse about Europe ever since the U.K. joined the EU: British politicians, who have never truly committed themselves to flying the European flag, consistently fail to tell their citizens what the U.K. actually gets out of its EU membership. The poll’s breakdown figures on party affiliation do show a notable difference between the British left and Conservatives: Only 29 percent of the latter would vote for the U.K. staying in Europe, compared to 38 percent of Labor adherents and 59 percent of the Liberal Democrats. Though far from a triumphant legacy for former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his European ambitions for the U.K., this is nonetheless a relative victory.

Today, the EU is a “bad thing” for 43 percent of Britons and a “good thing” for just 23 percent, a figure that fell from 36 percent in 2004. With a significant proportion of Britons being either agnostic or ignorant about the EU (27 percent replied “neither/nor” and 8 percent “don’t know”), that is not enough support to even begin thinking about the bold projects such as political union or fiscal integration that continental Europe seems to be readying for. Clearly the British think fixing the euro is a job for the continent: Only 3 percent want a full European government and only 7 percent a more-integrated European Union. In Germany, by comparison, at least 35 percent of citizens support more European integration.

Age matters a little here, and the data for British youth age 18-25 are slightly more European on all questions, and less hostile in particular to greater integration, than the average: Ten percent favor more integration, for instance, compared to only 7 percent on average. But it would be an exaggeration to pretend that there is a Europhile British youth out there, eager to sign up for political union if only British Prime Minister David Cameron would let them.

Whatever they think of Europe and the EU, the British do want to vote on it. Sixty-seven percent are in favor of a referendum, as already proposed by Cameron, although the youth is less eager (49 percent) than the over-60 bracket (79 percent), perhaps because they will need to live through the consequences of a possible no vote. However, 25 percent would prefer to renegotiate the U.K. relationship to the EU before going to the urns, rather than voting up or down on an EU exit under current arrangements.

Nevertheless, the British public overwhelmingly rejects the idea that EU membership is in the U.K.’s national interest, with the list of negatives associated with the EU far longer than the positives. Britons ranked the British armed forces, the BBC World Service and the intelligence services higher than private companies, diplomats and overseas aid when it comes to institutions that best serve the national interest. In other words, the British public needs a reality check in terms of the U.K.’s economic and political position in a globalized and increasingly polarized world.

Remarkably, between two-thirds and three-quarters said Britain should work with the rest of the European Union on issues including energy security, climate policy, border security, foreign policy, defense policy and security policy, as well as on relations with key emerging economies. When the same questions are asked with regard to the United States, the EU wins out on all counts except defense and security policy.

Presumably, the logic behind this seeming contradiction is the one articulated by some of the Conservative euro-skeptics: Britain could, like Switzerland or Norway, enjoy the benefits of closeness to the EU without any of the obligations. This romantic vision fails to take into account that Norway’s oil and gas resources give it economic leverage that the economically troubled U.K., with its moribund industries, can only dream of, whereas Switzerland is a de facto member of the EU without any of the rights. Surely that cannot be what Britain wants either.

Britain has been a member of the EU for 37 years. Forty percent of its trade is with the eurozone economies, and its legal system is tightly woven into the living fabric of European law. Yet the views expressed by the poll respondents suggest that a majority of Britons continue to see themselves as citizens of a sovereign island, suggesting that something has gone utterly wrong with British political communication and public education about the EU and Britain’s role in it.

And whereas many Europeans think of Britain as one of the important “Big Three” powers in Europe, especially for common security and military policies, this feeling does not seem to be reciprocal. In fact, France, Germany and Poland top the list of countries Britons don’t like, just behind Russia and Ukraine. Clearly the British are opposed to a deeper, more-integrated European security and defense policy. But do they really think they have the commercial goods with which they could build a stable trade relationship with China? That they can establish an important bilateral strategic relationship with Russia? That Middle Eastern leaders would care what they think if they came alone to the region? That they could have a say in the Iranian nuclear dossier outside of the Quartet? And do they really believe that, with their military capabilities in decline, they still are, let alone will remain, the most important partner for the U.S. in Europe?

In short, the U.K. would be significantly weakened if it left the EU. But by the same token, the EU cannot afford a half-hearted Britain at a time when Europe needs to secure its place in a changing world, one in which it is, as a whole, increasingly marginalized. Continental Europe will hopefully survive this global trend through more integration. And British politicians will hopefully realize that they are better off coming along. But they should start talking differently to their people about Europe, and soon.

Ulrike Guérot is the representative for Germany at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in Berlin. She has widely published in European and American journals and has held teaching positions in various European and American universities, including the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies. Dr. Guérot has been decorated with France’s Ordre National du Mérite for her European engagement. Her column, the Continentalist, appears every Monday.

Photo: U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Munich, Germany, February 5, 2011 (Munich Security Conferenc photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license).