“We ‘had’ to break the whole thing (European Economic Community) up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing”
These are the words of Sir Humphrey, a senior civil servant, in Yes Minister (a BBC-series of the 1980s). He describes ironically the UK’s position within the European Economic Community.
Being a member of the EU (then: EEC) since 1973, nowhere in the EU the idea of not being in the EU is such a vivid imagination as in the UK (well, perhaps in Greece in a somewhat different way).
What is it about the EU and the UK?
Let me start with sharing an experience which I think is quite typical for the relationship between the UK and the continent. During my 4 months stay at King’s College London, at the Department of European and International Studies I encountered the following situation:
At a non-academic meeting in London with a mixed audience consisting of quite some international people, but also a considerable number of British, the speaker asked the Europeans to raise their hands. Guess what? Only the “continental” Europeans did…
Those feelings of “being different from Europe” feed into a longstanding and growing tradition of outspoken skepticism towards the “European project”.¹
Last November a bill was adopted in the House of Commons that would entail a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017². 2017 is still some time away. It is by no means a fait accompli, as the recent defeat of the bill in the House of Lords³ shows, which has at least a delaying effect.
What outcome to expect of a possible referendum?
During the kick-off meeting of ACCESS Europe⁴ two contrasting answers were given. Is it fear or anger that primarily drives the scepticism of UK citizens towards the EU? Keynote speaker Tsoukalis expects that although citizens (and especially UK citizens) don’t feel comfortable with the direction of EU developments, they will not want to leave, because of the fear of the alternative. However, Hooghe argues that rather than fear it is anger that is strongly present among the UK electorate in their opinion about the EU. Anger would make citizens more inclined to risky behaviour and close their eyes for new information. In that case a decision to leave the EU would be more likely.
Interestingly, already in the aftermath of joining the then European Community in 1973, a referendum was held in 1975 asking whether the UK should stay. 67 voted Yes⁵. Polls under the UK electorate during the last year show a “slightly” different picture⁶.
Support for staying in the EU ranges from 31%-40% and for leaving support varies between 34%-47%, with a quite large group of “don’t know” (16%-20%). Would Cameron be able to renegotiate UK-membership, support to stay within the EU would increase to 45%-55%.
However, other EU Member States are not keen on starting renegotiation with the UK to keep it on board. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius compared the EU to a football club: “Once you’ve signed up, you can’t decide to start playing rugby.”⁷.
Yet, from the British point of view you could argue that they actually thought to have signed up for rugby, rather than a game of football, i.e. the Brits feel that they have ended up into something they didn’t sign up for in the first place. This points at a deeper underlying question: what is the game, what is the EU about?
Before any referendum onstaying or leaving, first we will get the European Parliament-elections this spring. How big will be the support for UK’s Independence Party? Big enough to make a pigs breakfast of the European Parliament, together with other EU sceptic political parties?
Trineke Palm MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research is funded by a NWO Research Talent Grant and deals with the character of the EU’s foreign policy. This blog was inspired by a 4 months research stay at Kings College London, Department of European and International Studies.