The UK and the EU: A Breaking of Unions

By Alex Fisher

The flag of the European Union

FOR the first time in many years, British Eurosceptics smell blood. With the Eurozone crisis having vindicated the nation’s decision to stay out of the single currency, the uneasy truce that had emerged between pro-Europeans like former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke and the larger sceptical faction that includes many Government backbenchers has broken down, perhaps irrevocably. Europe is once more on the agenda, and recent opinion polls suggest that concern about the EU has risen to a six year high, while support for the UK Independence Party has increased dramatically.

Public concern regarding the EU prompted Conservative backbencher David Nuttall to introduce a controversial motion in Parliament, which called for an immediate referendum on the UK’s continued membership in the EU. It was immediately evident that the bill would not pass. The opposition Labour Party declared their disagreement immediately, while the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition Government announced that they would impose a three-line whip against the motion. Under the British system, such a decision demonstrates that the Government expects its members both to be in Parliament that day to vote and to support its position. Historically, those who defied such a strongly expressed whip would not be offered a Ministerial job under the current administration. In the days preceding the vote, many MPs reported receiving direct and aggressive contact from the Whips’ Office and on occasion, from 10 Downing Street.

Despite this pressure, 81 Conservative MPs backed the motion and voted against the Government’s position. Several junior frontbenchers, including ministerial aide Adam Holloway, resigned from their positions to avoid being sacked.  A rebellion of this scale was unprecedented. It represented over a quarter of the Parliamentary Party and surpassed those of the early 1990s, a time when the Party was riddled with divisions concerning the prospect of further European integration. Although it had long been known that many Conservatives were opposed to the EU, the extent of support for the motion defied expectations.

It would be easy to conclude that the unexpectedly strong support for the motion was in reality irrelevant, since it did not have a tangible impact on the UK’s current interactions with the EU. However, the vote came at a time when the Government had already been following a more Eurosceptic course than its Labour predecessor. In particular, a “referendum lock” introduced by the Cameron administration pledged that the UK would seek a public mandate before signing on to future European treaty changes resulting in a transfer of power from Britain to Brussels. Recent opinion polling suggests that the British people would almost certainly vote against any reforms that they believed would dilute national sovereignty.

British Euroscepticism is nothing new. The UK entered what was then termed the European Communities in 1973, over twenty years after the original formation of the European Coal and Steal Community. Since then, relations have often been tense. Britain’s attempt to participate in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which tied the Pound Sterling to the German Deutschmark in preparation for the introduction of the Euro, ended in failure when the UK was forced to withdraw from ERM in the midst of soaring interest rates and a rapidly weakening currency. The day of withdrawal, 16 September 1992, was termed “Black Wednesday,” and cast a shadow over the UK’s future dealings with its European partners.

Although the Labour Government elected in 1997 was more sympathetic to the EU than its Conservative predecessor, Chancellor Gordon Brown’s “five economic tests” essentially ensured that the UK would not join the single currency under his watch. These tests dictated that business cycles and economic structures must reach high levels of convergence, and insisted that membership in the Euro should have a positive impact on British financial services. Passing all of these tests simultaneously was essentially impossible, and consistent Conservative pressure combined with ongoing public scepticism to ensure that Labour did not adopt a more pro-European approach.

Nevertheless, the UK ultimately participated in every single treaty that expanded the EU’s powers, although it often secured opt-outs in specific areas of policy. Most controversially, Labour signed the 2007 Lisbon Treaty whilst ignoring Conservative calls for a referendum. This decision was unpopular, and contributed towards a belief that political elites were not taking public opinion into account as they embraced further European integration.

Despite the election of a Conservative-led Government, many on the right are still dissatisfied with the administration’s position on Europe. The Liberal Democrats, who form part of the Government, are highly pro-European. This has prevented David Cameron from pursuing a more Eurosceptic set of policies. Repatriation of powers has been vaguely discussed, but with the EU focused on the financial crisis and the Prime Minister reluctant to antagonise his coalition partners, progress seems unlikely. Further inactivity will only serve to antagonise those MPs keen to see a fundamental review of the UK’s future relationship. If the EU decides, as many expect it will, to pursue treaty changes as part of its response to the ongoing financial crisis, Eurosceptics will be handed a new opportunity to pursue their aims. Their calls for less engagement with the EU may well become overwhelming.

Alex Fisher is a sophomore in Morse College.


Published by Alex Fisher

Alex Fisher is a contributor to The Politic from Bury, United Kingdom. Contact him at alexander.fisher@yale.edu.

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