For many Brits, crossing the channel and taking the ferry from Dover to Calais is setting “off to Europe”. For us, a good moment to think about a country that considers itself somehow distant from Europe and is home to growing Euro-scepticism.
Euro-scepticism gains ground on the island. At the end of 2011, the British government opted out from the establishment of a common European fiscal policy supported by a majority in the House of Commons and wide public opinion. Apart from that, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wishes to withdraw from the EU altogether, has become the fourth-largest party in members after Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. During four days in the United Kingdom, we talked to young people as well as politicians and scholars to find out what British Euro-scepticism is all about. Is it a feeling of cultural distinctiveness? Or is it an opposition to undemocratic decision-making in Brussels?
From Harry, the 26-year old chairman of the youth organisation of UKIP, we get a rather sophisticated account of why European nations should be suspicious of the EU: Since the EU can in some areas pass legislations that have to be implemented by the member states even if everyone in one nation state opposes the law, Harry claims that this is a serious threat to national sovereignty: The EU is in its worst case some kind of a majoritarian tyranny. Harry says: Every matter that has to be dealt with on a transnational level should rather be subject to a treaty of any number of nations interested in reaching an agreement. Opt in, opt out, whenever you want: Voilà the British tradition of liberalism.
Yet, no democracy works without overruling minority opinions in everyday policy. Why is it so clear that for many British, this should not become reality in the framework of a “European democracy”? Apart from sophisticated arguments about sovereignty and self-interest, British euro-scepticism appears to be primarily about the care for a cultural identity and the feeling of being distinct from the rest of Europe. This is the impression we got when we chatted with some young British on the ferry to Calais, who were on their way to go skiing in France.
Funnily enough, everyone we talked to said that they believed British people generally to be critical of anything in connection with the EU; but themselves, no one would oppose the idea of European integration right away. Rather, Euro-scepticism often showed as a somehow unconscious conviction linked to the disparity of British culture, history, or the like: ”Britain is distant from Europe geographically.” “Britain used to have its own Empire, that’s why it is different from other European countries.” Ought it also to be distant from the rest of Europe? Or would you like to have the Euro, for example? “No, we should definitely keep the pound!” The ever underlying British fear is that more Europe might mean less of British culture, as one of our interviewees put it: “It seems like the EU is destroying all the cultural differences.”
On the other hand, three days in London make it hard to believe that Britain is not European. As Timothy Garton Ash put it in our interview: “If you come to London, you know that you are European. The blend of lifestyle, the way that people behave, the blend of freedom and an attempt of social justice – all that tells you that you are in Europe.” Apart from all Euro-scepticism and all the anti-European propaganda of the British press, there are young British people that do realise our common grounds, as we experienced on London’s university campuses. Perhaps, they will one day be the majority.