United Kingdom

1. Euroscepticism and the European Parliament Elections

UKIP dominates election campaign

The key top­ic of the debate in the British Euro­pean elec­tion cam­paign was the Unit­ed King­dom Inde­pen­dence Par­ty (UKIP) and its gen­er­al­ized attack upon the British polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment. Euro­pean issues were an impor­tant com­po­nent of this attack, but far from being its total­i­ty. Social issues, on which UKIP advo­cates gen­er­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive atti­tudes, also played a role in the party’s cam­paign, as impor­tant as the party’s main Euro­pean theme, that of unre­strict­ed immi­gra­tion from Roma­nia and Bul­gar­ia. Until the very end of the cam­paign, most of UKIP’s oppo­nents con­tent­ed them­selves with attacks on what they regard­ed as the eccen­tric social and polit­i­cal views of numer­ous indi­vid­ual UKIP can­di­dates, and made lit­tle effort to dis­cuss Euro­pean pol­i­cy issues, with many Con­ser­v­a­tive can­di­dates essen­tial­ly agree­ing with UKIP’s views and many Labour can­di­dates fear­ing that some of their elec­tors shared UKIP’s hos­til­i­ty to the Euro­pean Union. The sin­gle excep­tion to this pat­tern was the Lib­er­al Democ­rats, who attempt­ed to put a pro-EU case dur­ing the elec­tions, but derived lit­tle elec­toral suc­cess from this deci­sion. Since none of the main British par­ties sup­port­ed the Spitzenkan­di­dat of their polit­i­cal fam­i­lies, the exis­tence of Spitzenkan­di­dat­en played no role in the elec­toral cam­paign. Some news­pa­pers dis­cussed the debates of the Spitzenkan­di­dat­en, but not in any sense as a mat­ter of press­ing con­cern for British elec­tors. No pub­lic or polit­i­cal sup­port has accrued in the Unit­ed King­dom to Mr. Juncker’s can­di­da­ture for the Pres­i­den­cy from his polit­i­cal grouping’s now being the largest in the new Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Since the Euro­pean elec­tions, both UKIP and the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty have been crit­i­cized by their polit­i­cal oppo­nents for the par­ties they seem like­ly to ally them­selves with in Strasbourg.

Euroscepticism at the heart of European elections

For the rea­sons explained above, Euroscep­ti­cism was at the heart of the Euro­pean elec­tions in the Unit­ed King­dom. A cen­tral argu­ment of Con­ser­v­a­tive can­di­dates in these elec­tions for not vot­ing UKIP was that only their par­ty could guar­an­tee the hold­ing of a Euro­pean ref­er­en­dum after the gen­er­al elec­tion in 2015. In this ref­er­en­dum, many mem­bers of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty would cer­tain­ly advo­cate a vote for the Unit­ed King­dom to leave the Euro­pean Union. Towards the end of the cam­paign, a num­ber of voic­es were raised with­in the Labour Par­ty com­plain­ing that the Labour lead­er­ship had not tak­en suf­fi­cient­ly seri­ous­ly the con­cerns of Labour elec­tors which UKIP was exploit­ing suc­cess­ful­ly. These voic­es were divid­ed between those advo­cat­ing a more restric­tive approach to Euro­pean inte­gra­tion into the UK and those argu­ing for a more robust state­ment by the party’s lead­er­ship of the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits accru­ing to the Unit­ed King­dom from this immi­gra­tion. The deci­sion of the Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat leader, Nick Clegg, to fight a deter­mined­ly pro-EU cam­paign was fol­lowed by an extreme­ly poor result. Although this dis­ap­point­ing out­come for his par­ty has many expla­na­tions, of which the unpop­u­lar­i­ty of the Euro­pean Union in this coun­try is prob­a­bly not the most impor­tant, Mr. Clegg’s posi­tion as leader of the Lib­er­al Democ­rats has cer­tain­ly not been strength­ened by his con­duct of the Euro­pean Elec­tions and their result, in which the par­ty lost eleven of its twelve MEPs.

In the Unit­ed King­dom, there is wide­spread dis­trust and dis­dain for the estab­lished polit­i­cal class­es and great pes­simism about the eco­nom­ic future of the coun­try in the medi­um and long term. Liv­ing stan­dards have at best stag­nat­ed for the past sev­en years and what improve­ment there has been has been con­cen­trat­ed in Lon­don and the South East. It is no coin­ci­dence that the worst result for UKIP in Eng­land took place in the Lon­don area, a result attrib­uted by a UKIP spokes­woman to the high lev­el of edu­ca­tion in the cap­i­tal. UKIP has suc­ceed­ed in con­vinc­ing a sub­stan­tial minor­i­ty of the British elec­torate that the Euro­pean Union is an impor­tant con­trib­u­tor to the eco­nom­ic and social prob­lems of the Unit­ed King­dom. UKIP was great­ly helped in mak­ing this argu­ment by the extreme­ly neg­a­tive image of the Euro­pean Union pre­sent­ed to the British elec­torate over the past twen­ty years by wide sec­tions of the British media, par­tic­u­lar­ly the writ­ten media. At 34.2 per­cent, turnout in the Euro­pean Elec­tions of 2014 was down by 0.5 per­cent com­pared to 2009.

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2. The EU’s neighbourhood

Passive hostility towards Putin’s Russia

The Unit­ed King­dom is one of the more geo­graph­i­cal­ly remote mem­ber states of the Euro­pean Union from Rus­sia. The issue of rela­tions with Rus­sia is there­fore not one of cen­tral polit­i­cal con­cern to British vot­ers. In so far as there is any coher­ent view of Rus­sia in this coun­try, it is one of sus­pi­cion and hos­til­i­ty towards Mr. Putin, allied with the accep­tance that there is lit­tle the West­ern pow­ers, let alone Britain act­ing on its own, can do to rein­te­grate the Crimea into the Ukraine. British pub­lic opin­ion would not wish to leave a free hand for Mr. Putin, but there is no call for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to enforce this desire.

The con­sid­er­a­tions set out in the pre­ced­ing para­graph also apply to the ques­tion of Ukraine. The view is some­times expressed that the Euro­pean Union behaved provoca­tive­ly towards Rus­sia in the lat­er months of 2013 and the ear­ly months of 2014. The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, attract­ed com­ment, not all of it unfavourable, when he spoke of his admi­ra­tion for the polit­i­cal effec­tive­ness of Mr. Putin. In gen­er­al, how­ev­er, the British gov­ern­ment has been hap­py to co-ordi­nate its approach to the Ukraine with that of its Euro­pean part­ners. This atti­tude is entire­ly con­sis­tent with tra­di­tion­al British sup­port for the mech­a­nisms of the East­ern Euro­pean Part­ner­ship. It should how­ev­er be under­lined that this Part­ner­ship is a mat­ter of much less pub­lic inter­est and con­cern in the Unit­ed King­dom than in many con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean countries.

Decreasing support for Turkish EU membership

The British gov­ern­ment has for a long time been an advo­cate of Turk­ish mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union. In this advo­ca­cy it was prob­a­bly nev­er reflect­ing pub­lic opin­ion in this coun­try. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the recent­ly adopt­ed Euro­pean Union Act, which pre­scribes ref­er­en­dums in the Unit­ed King­dom for all future major Euro­pean treaties, does not envis­age a ref­er­en­dum in the case of future pro­posed enlarge­ments. Dur­ing the Euro­pean Elec­tions, UKIP made immi­gra­tion from Ruma­nia and Bul­gar­ia one of its major cam­paign themes. Any British gov­ern­ment for the fore­see­able future will think long and hard before pre­sent­ing itself as an enthu­si­as­tic advo­cate of Turk­ish mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union. In so far as inter­nal Turk­ish pol­i­cy is fol­lowed in the British media, the image cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ed of the coun­try tends to empha­size the sup­pos­ed­ly author­i­tar­i­an and Islamist aspects of Turkey’s present rulers.

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3. Power relations in the EU

No further British integration in an EU where Germany is dominant?

Ger­many is wide­ly per­ceived in the Unit­ed King­dom as the dom­i­nant pow­er of the Euro­pean Union. This is not nec­es­sar­i­ly seen as a bad thing in itself, but Ger­man pre-emi­nence with­in the Euro­pean Union is often cit­ed as a rea­son for extreme cau­tion towards pos­si­ble British par­tic­i­pa­tion in deep­er Euro­pean inte­gra­tion. In join­ing the euro for instance, accord­ing to this argu­ment, Britain would be ced­ing an impor­tant part of its eco­nom­ic sov­er­eign­ty to a “reluc­tant hege­mon” that may not know how to make good use of this hege­mo­ny, and may cer­tain­ly exer­cise its hege­mo­ny in a way inim­i­cal to British interests.

An ambiguous position between growth and austerity policies

The con­sen­sus of eco­nom­ic com­men­ta­tors in the Unit­ed King­dom is that the Euro­zone has too much favoured aus­ter­i­ty com­pared with growth over the past five years. This is part­ly a mat­ter of unre­flec­tive hos­til­i­ty towards the Euro­pean Union and its insti­tu­tions, and part­ly a mat­ter of gen­uine eco­nom­ic analy­sis. There is a wide­spread view with­in the British eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sion that Ger­man eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy has been exces­sive­ly “mer­can­tilist” in char­ac­ter and that the Euro­zone as a whole would have ben­e­fit­ted from stronger resis­tance by Germany’s part­ners to this over-sim­pli­fied approach to eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy. The dis­cus­sion of this issue has how­ev­er been com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that the British gov­ern­ment has claimed to pur­sue domes­ti­cal­ly a pol­i­cy of aus­ter­i­ty in recent years, but in fact has been very cau­tious in its approach to the reduc­tion of pub­lic deficits and has recent­ly tak­en spe­cif­ic mea­sures to re-inflate the noto­ri­ous­ly volatile British hous­ing mar­ket. This, com­bined with Britain’s absence from the Euro­zone, has made it dif­fi­cult for the British gov­ern­ment to take an unam­bigu­ous posi­tion in the Euro­pean debate between “aus­ter­i­ty” and “growth.” It has on the one hand sought to rein­force the case for its ver­sion of “aus­ter­i­ty” by point­ing to con­ti­nen­tal mod­els. It has also how­ev­er stressed the macro­eco­nom­ic flex­i­bil­i­ty it has enjoyed through not being a mem­ber of the Eurozone.

Towards ‘Brexit’?

What view the Unit­ed King­dom will take of British exit from the Euro­pean Union is one of the great unre­solved issues of cur­rent Euro­pean and British pol­i­tics. Much will depend on the result of the Gen­er­al elec­tion next year. Labour’s present pol­i­cy is not to hold a Euro­pean ref­er­en­dum unless and until there is a new Euro­pean treaty signed by the British gov­ern­ment which entails sig­nif­i­cant fur­ther pool­ing of British sov­er­eign­ty. No such treaty is at present in prospect. The Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty on the oth­er hand is com­mit­ted to rene­go­ti­at­ing the terms of British mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union and then putting the results of this rene­go­ti­a­tion to a ref­er­en­dum by 2017 at the lat­est. It is very dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that any such rene­go­ti­a­tion will be suf­fi­cient to sat­is­fy any sub­stan­tial per­cent­age of Mr. Cameron’s deeply euroscep­tic Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty. If a re-elect­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment holds a Euro­pean ref­er­en­dum before 2017, it must be assumed the great major­i­ty of the gov­ern­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty will be advo­cat­ing at that stage a vote to leave the Euro­pean Union.

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This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.