Having spent as long as I have studying euroscepticism, I have come to appreciate the difference between the short- and the long-term.
The natural tendency of commentators is to see their time as special and uniquely interesting, where every little thing is a harbinger of change: certainly, since taking up this blog, I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone. But as an historical institutionalist, I also recognise that political systems are rather sticky and prone to change only slowly over time: the radical jump is rare, not normal.
The upshot is that I tend to see continuity rather than change and I doubt the ability of leopards to change spots. This has occasionally been taken as being too sanguine about ‘worrying developments’, when it’s more properly an understanding of the world that puts a discount on shifts being followed through.
All of this is by way of a caveat to a longer-term shift that has become more notable over the past year or so.
Throughout the past 15+ years of working in the field, it has consistently been anti-EU elements that have set the agenda, at least in the UK. The entire debate about British membership of the single currency in the 1990s was framed by the fears of such membership, with pro-membership groups and actors working primarily to assuage fears: even Blair – in the absence of a desire to invest heavily in the policy – was reactive here. Similarly, discussion through the 2000s was about how to manage the EU issue and minimise its impact, rather than a positive agenda: Eastern enlargement was as close as we got and even then it has continued to bite politicians on the backside.
The result has been to gently drift the UK towards a more radical debate, about EU membership and the logic of a referendum. That discourse has been around for a long time, but its increasing traction was always on the cards, given the unchanging environment of debate.
What is now coming to the fore is a change in that environment. As membership and a referendum have emerged, so to have pro-EU elements. These have always been there – indeed, it would be fair to characterise every single government of the past 40 years as intrinsically pro-EU (even if some hid it better than others) – but for a long time they have relied on the weight of the system to secure their interests (maybe they’re all historical institutionalists too). As any student of politics should be able to tell you, the system cannot always be relied upon: even when you have an extensive system of coercion behind you (as in Communist states) that is no guarantee of getting what you want. And neither the EU nor the UK has such a coercive approach.
As membership is challenged, so pro-EU voices have started to mobilise. Tony Blair and John Major have made rare forays into the public debate, while Ed Milliband has also become more vocal. Likewise, big business is beginning to lobby more forcefully than it has for a long time.
These are still tentative steps, and will remain so until hands are forced, but they do mark an important change in the potential range of outcomes from the on-going discussion in the UK. As I’ve long argued, the root problem is not the lack of a democratic voice through a referendum, but the lack of a meaningful debate on what the EU is and should be. If non-sceptical voices can find a place to articulate their views, then we will be a lot closer to that debate than we were, and that can only be a good thing for the long-term management of the situation.
P.S. I’ve also been writing about the role of Euromyths in the British debate (and being similarly dubious about the possibility of change) on the LSE EUROPP blog.