Britain in the EU

By Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos

This blog post summarises parts of a lecture Dr Dimitrakopoulos gave to British diplomats at the Foreign Office on 18 February 2013.

Britain has been described as an ‘awkward partner’ (George, 1994) within the EU but the chequered history of her membership is even more complex. Although it is true that until 1997 there were only two major episodes of positive engagement (the establishment of the single European market in the second half of the 1980s and John Major’s short-lived attempt, upon his arrival at 10 Downing Street, to place the UK ‘at the heart of Europe’) a more thorough understanding of Britain’s 40-year history as a member of the EC/EU ought to be couched not only in contemporary debates on the future of European integration but also Britain’s own past, present and future.

For a start, Britain’s accession to the then European Communities was a sign of an undeclared defeat. As Hugo Young appositely notes,

‘For the makers of the original “Europe”, beginning to fulfil Victor Hugo’s dream, their creation was a triumph.  Out of defeat they produced a new kind of victory.  For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a kind of defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climactic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe’ (Young, 1998, 2).

Indeed, not only did Britain’s governments shun the opportunity to participate in this process from the beginning – in the 1950s – but their pronouncements were matched by further concrete action: Britain played a major role in the establishment of the European Free Trade Association which was meant to be a counter-weight to the emerging European Communities, and was devoid of a common external tariff and a common trade negotiator vis-à-vis third countries, i.e. two ‘state-building’ features of the EEC. Britain was initially joined by Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, nearly all of which [i] subsequently became full members of the EC/EU (as did Finland that became a full member of EFTA in 1986 but joined the EU only nine years later).  In addition, far from its usual position as a leading decision shaper in international affairs, Britain has had to apply three times in order to join the European Communities.

Since then, by and large Britain’s membership has been marked by a number of paradoxes or even contradictions: a sceptical member state but also one whose basic preferences are often (though not always) congruent with key developments in the process of integration as indicated by the single market project, successive enlargements, market-based approaches to a series of policy issues, including employment.

More recently, the terms of the domestic debate on Britain’s membership have not only returned to the themes of the late 1980s and early 1990s but can be seen as evidence of the British political elite beginning to catch up with the continental European debate on the future and the finalité politique of European integration – a debate essentially launched by Joschka Fischer’s famous speech at Humboldt University in May 2000. This involves a struggle between the supporters and opponents of essentially two quite different options for the future of Europe, namely neoliberalism and regulated capitalism. Indeed, on the one hand, David Cameron’s recent speech at Bloomberg and other pronouncements made by senior Tories place them firmly on the side of those who support unfettered markets, a neoliberal Europe – that is arguably the essence of contemporary Tory Euroscepticism for they see the EU as an actual or even just potential source of intervention in the economy. As the emerging debate on the UK’s membership of the EU is bound to reveal, when Mr Cameron refers to ‘flexibility’ he actually has in mind what many on the Continent as well as the UK call ‘social dumping’. In that sense, the recent developments in the debate in the UK mark a return to the early 1990s, when the late John Smith, then Labour leader, was castigating the Major-led government for trying to turn the UK into the sweatshop of Europe, trying to compete with Taiwan on low wages, rather than with Germany on skills, as he put in a speech in the House of Commons. The fact that Mr Cameron has singled out the EU’s Working Time Directive makes him particularly vulnerable to that line of attack because that directive (like others in the socio-economic and environmental domains) actually allows individual member states to pursue higher standards. So, if Mr Cameron wants flexibility, this is bound to mean the dilution of standards, not their improvement.

The Labour Party’s response was largely couched in Ed Miliband and his team’s preference for ‘responsible capitalism’ which has a clear social democratic ‘flavour’. This is good news for those who want to have real choices not only in national electoral contests but also the forthcoming European elections for, ultimately, the kind of Europe that we want is inextricably linked to the kind of Britain we want.

References cited

George, S. (1994) An Awkward Partner.  Britain in the European Community. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, H. (1998) This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. London: Macmillan.


[i] Norway and Switzerland are the two exceptions.

Cameron’s EU Speech: What Would Machiavelli Say?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

David Cameron made his long awaited speech about Europe this week, a speech that will decisively shape both his premiership and Britain’s relationship with the EU. It has been welcomed by parts of the press and Eurosceptic Tory MPs. It has been criticised by various other members of the EU.

The big question is what happens next-will the speech save or sink Cameron, Britain and the EU? In reaching for an assessment one way to go is backwards to 1513 to get the views of that most straight talking of theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, author of The Prince, spent time as ambassador to the court of Louis XII and travelled with Cesare Borgia so may know more than most about the twists and turns of foreign policy. He has already been used to dispense advice on the Brown vs. Blair feud and to proffer tips to Ed Miliband.

So what would Machiavelli say about Cameron’s speech and its consequences? He would welcome the clarity (though some feel the superficial clarity hides much fudging).  Machiavelli advised that a leader needs to come down on one side or the other of an argument. A leader must give ‘striking demonstrations’ and reveal himself in favour of ‘one side or another’ without an attempt to hedge or be neutral.  Cameron’s speech was striking and welcomed as defining. Machiavelli may have had some reservations about some of the ‘ifs’ contained in the speech-the clarity of the position could unravel under pressure and no amount of ‘sunny’ optimism could hide this.

Machiavelli warns, however, to ‘shun flatterers’. A leader must always ask and question but too much praise from flatterers will lead to ‘changes and indecision’. He should ‘make up his own mind by himself’. Cameron must beware potentially transient poll ratings or cheering headlines. ‘Prosperity’ in all senses, he warns, ‘is ephemeral’.

Another point Machiavelli may make, rather unexpectedly, would be to go with what the populace want. Machiavelli may or may not have been a democrat but he had a keen sense that any successful leader needed the ‘people’ with him.

In this case discovering precisely what the people want is difficult. It seems that, as of this weekend just over 50% of the public wish to leave the EU, there is support for renegotiation and most people asked would like a referendum (though apparently referendums on any subject are always popular). However, other polls indicate that the EU as a political issue remains a low priority for most voters.

Machiavelli’s final point is the most important. While supporting clarity, Machiavelli was also a supreme realist in terms of the need to adapt- Margaret Thatcher’s famous advice to ‘always leave yourself a way out’. Machiavelli believed most of the politicians he had known had displayed ‘a fatal inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances’.

So Cameron needs to be able to move with events. The difficulty is that, while the ‘ifs’ may bring wriggle room, the promise of a referendum does not. In the short to medium term the question is whether the speech and referendum promise strengthens his hand in Europe or hobbles his negotiating power. In the longer term Cameron has committed to a referendum in 2017 that may take place in be in a very different political landscape. Machiavelli may well point out that if Cameron wins the next election (on his own-another big if) and if his negotiations are successful the EU, the world economy and Britain may all be very different in five years. Could Cameron adapt his cast-iron pledge to this new world?

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.