Britain as the Good European

A couple of things have caught my eye this week in the world of UK-EU relations, one relatively minor, the other potentially much bigger. However, they are linked by a common strand of thinking about how the UK acts and is perceived.

The minor thing was an article at the start of the week by Boris Johnson, where he used the example of British ski-instructors in France to argue that the problem with the UK in the EU was not that it didn’t comply, but that it complied too much. By taking directives at face value and implementing them assiduously, the UK were opening themselves up to competition, while European counterparts might talk the talk, but certainly don’t walk the walk.

This represents an interesting strand of critical discourse in the British debate. While many sceptics would simply argue that the UK is forced to do things it doesn’t want to (‘ruled by Brussels’), this strand accepts that the UK is a willing partner, but that it pays the price for being too good. Obviously, behind this is a worldview that sees the British as rule-bound, respecting the rule of law and generally decent, while ‘they’ are more interested in image than substance and are generally willing to take advantage (‘just because we said bus liberalisation, it didn’t mean we’d actually liberalise buses!’). This is an image that reaches back into the long history of continental relations, where honest John Bull has to tread carefully to protect his honour.

This is interesting because it operates as a kind of jujitsu against attacks from pro-EU voices. It acknowledges the need for cooperation, positions the UK as willing partners, but then pulls the rag out, by suggesting bad faith on the part of others. “We’ve tried to be good, but they just don’t play fair,” is the pitch. The notion of fairness is one that carries a lot of traction in British political debate, so we might expect to see more of it in the coming years.

This links to the more major event, namely the arrival of Angela Merkel in the UK today. Amid the general love-in that she will experience, the key policy issue will be securing support for Cameron’s plans for renegotiation. With tantalizing glimpses that this might be possible, the sense that the weight of the argument might actually carry the day is stronger than it ever has been.

Again, this reflects the BoJo worldview, that the British are stand-up types and that they can convince others through the power of debate, argument and evidence. With the murmurs of (what is taken to be) support from the Dutch and the previous Italian governments, the British government has used this to bolster itself against further pressure from backbench elements, in order to steer some kind of middle way.

What is problematic is that – as so many times before – the British view of Merkel is very reductive. As Tim Bale forcefully argued in the Guardian, Merkel’s CDU is founded on some fundamentally different bases from the Conservatives and any argument is likely to be very limited and conditional.

Importantly, this is primarily a matter of low levels of knowledge, rather than any deception by ‘them’.

The persistent unwillingness of British politicians (with some exceptions) to engage meaningfully with European counterparts has produced a very mediated worldview that does not properly reflect realities on the ground. The Tory withdrawal from the EPP is a case in point, cutting them off from much of their regular contact with the CDU and other large centre-right parties.

In a context of British navel-gazing on Europe, the temptation is to take any expression of non-dismay by other Europeans as a statement of deep support, or at least as evidence in favour of the ‘they need us more than we need them, so we can step out of the EU and step up an FTA’ tendency. As Cameron is likely to find out today, that simplistic approach to European integration is likely to end up in tears and frustration, on all sides. Without a genuine debate and real standing interaction between parties, that can only continue to damage whatever form of cooperation is being worked towards.