The British debate on the EU

A brief post today, as I’ve been speaking at an event in Copenhagen on the possible dual exits of Scotland (from the UK) and the UK (from the EU). It’s been an interesting opportunity to see how the British debate is seen and understood from outside, something that looks even more interesting in the light of further declining public support across the Union.

In essence, the British debate is powered by a small group of committed opponents to the European Union, particularly those who are attached to the Conservative party, but also in the other parties too. Their reflexive distrust of European integration draws on neo-liberalism, as well as a view of the world order in which the UK is not bound by the same rules as others.

While small in number, their influence has been considerable, for they have managed to push their agenda very successfully within the Conservatives, even if they haven’t fully secured the leadership: their concentration, determination  and inflexibility have resulted in a party that has moved into any ever hardening policy position. That has be only reinforced by the perceived threat from UKIP.

At the same time, most of the general public don’t really care that much about the EU as an issue: ever since the death of the Constitutional Treaty in the mid-2000s it has been a distinctly minority pursuit, with an associated drop in the number of pressure groups working on the subject.

Thus, the public largely follows the cues it receives. Here, the approach taken by anti-EU elements to focus on the referendum  argument – ‘give the people a voice’ – has been very successful indeed. Given the low levels of knowledge and interest, to appeal to democracy and voting makes deep intuitive sense to the person on the street.

Finally, there is a fundamental problem of studied disinterest. Low public interest means that political parties don’t see any electoral benefit in making a case for European integration, compounded by their own internal splits, just as the media has limited coverage because it knows that the subject isn’t one that sells. Even committed pro-Europeans have been guilty of keeping their powder dry until they have to, for fear of being left isolated or undermined by others.

Thus the British debate moves on, characterised by polemic and posturing, rather than real debate. That there is more debate in most other member states should not give any cause for celebration, for it only underlines the thinness of the European public sphere, and of the mainstreaming of European issues into national political life.

Despite this, it is important to underline that the UK is still a long way from leaving the EU: despite everything, still a third to a quarter of the population think it is a ‘good thing’ and if a referendum does come to pass then it’s not such a stretch to imagine that much more considerable resources will be brought to bear in support of membership. However, none of that should detract from the poor management of the issue by all involved that we should be in this position in the first place.