Professor of EU Politics, University of Surrey
The celebrated political philosopher JS Mill said 150 years ago that the UK Conservative party – the Tories – were ‘by the law of their existence the stupidest party’. How right he was.
David Cameron’s performance at the European Council meeting last week was the nadir of UK diplomacy in the EU. For the sake of his standing in his parliamentary party, many of whom hate the EU with a passion, he has cast the UK to the margins in the EU. Claims about defending the City ofLondonfrom an imaginary attack have been dressed up as the defence of the national interest, with Cameron playing the role of Churchill. It is a truly staggering situation, because the UK will now find it much more difficult – if not impossible – to defend our real national interests when the 26 meet to discuss key matters of EU policy and we are not there.
Moreover, Cameron’s decision is causing huge problems wit his coalition partners, since the Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European of theUK’s three biggest political parties. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is a former Commission official and MEP. He has ripped into the Prime Minister publicly. This could even bring down the coalition, although self-interest on the part of Mr Clegg’s party may force them to hold their noses, as they have done several times before.
The UK has usually had a difficult relationship with the EU. We joined because we were effectively told to by the US, and because our economy was suffering outside the then-European Economic Community, or EEC. For the UK, the EU has always been viewed by many people as the sign of our post-imperial weakness, and thus bitterly resented. This is in contrast withFrance, where the EU has been seen as a means to secure French influence, or in many countries where it has been part of the transformation to liberal democracy or rehabilitation after World War II.
For many years, the UK press has been ignorant, patronising and half-informed about the EU. Most British people know little about ‘Brussels’ except that it is (allegedly) the source of endless red tape and petty bureaucracy, bent on destroying all that is good and true about Britain. The pro-European case has never been made by British elites since the referendum on staying in the EEC in 1975. Consequently most British people are at best lukewarm about the EU, and most are Eurosceptic.
The best way forward for both the UK and the EU now is for the UK to have a referendum on whether we should stay in or leave. This should not take place for a couple of years, however – we need clearer heads, and to be able to show citizens why being outside the EU would matter based on what will likely be, by that time, years of losing out in EU bargaining, with economic as well as political costs. This is the only way to convince the British people that despite its many faults – and I have published regularly pointing several of these out, together with ideas about what could be done to put them right – being at the heart of the EU is in Britain’s true national interest.