United Kingdom

1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

Mixed Views on Future Relations with Russia

It is difficult to discern any predominant view in the United Kingdom about future relations with Russia. Current Russian policy towards the Ukraine is generally regarded as brutal and aggressive, but there is little appetite in this country for the taking of military measures to resist this aggression. British military action in Iraq in 2003 is widely regarded as having been a costly failure, making a bad situation worse. This perception colours the approach of current British political leaders to the deployment of military force outside the NATO area. Sympathy for the Ukraine is moreover tempered by a general British belief that political and financial corruption is widespread in that country and unlikely to be eradicated in any near future. It is also widely believed in this country that Russia was provoked in the matter of the Ukraine by the aggressive diplomacy of the European Union. In part, this attitude reflects a desire always to find new reasons to criticize the European Union; in part it is a considered assessment of European diplomacy in the Ukraine over the past two years; in part it reflects the view of a non-negligible minority in this country (not just on the left of the political spectrum) that Britain since the Second World War has behaved ungenerously and aggressively towards its erstwhile Russian allies in that war.

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Growing Hostility towards EU Expansion

There is little or no awareness in this country of the Eastern Partnership as a category or concept. The Ukraine moreover is seen as a country with specific internal and external challenges of its own that are not mirrored in the circumstances of its non-Russian neighbours. In so far as events in the Ukraine have influenced British attitudes to any more general European issues, it has been to reinforce growing British popular hostility towards the further extension of the European Union. Traditionally, the British government has been favourable to the expansion of the European Union, an attitude in which British public opinion acquiesced without enthusiasm. Successful campaigns by UKIP and other political forces drawing attention to the large number of Central and Eastern European citizens from the EU working in the United Kingdom have however shifted political and popular attitudes.

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Riga Summit: Reaffirmed Uncertainty

To the very limited extent to which reporting took place on the Riga Summit, it was seen in the United Kingdom simply as a reflection of uncertainty and indecision within the European Union in its approach towards Russia. Despite the European Union’s policy of graduated sanctions towards Russia, there is a widespread impression in the United Kingdom that differences of interest and analysis between the Union’s member states prevent the pursuit of any robust and effective European policy towards Russia.

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Despite Ukraine Crisis, no need for a European Army

The prospect of a European army is almost universally regarded as wholly unacceptable in this country and events in the Ukraine have made no difference to this assessment. It is true that when politicians and commentators argue in this county that Britain should spend more money on its armed forces, they frequently point to the Ukraine as an example of military threats needing to be countered by greater defence spending. The discussion is however an almost exclusively national one, with little or no European dimension. Proposals for a “European army” from for instance Mr. Juncker have been generally seen as proof of his desire and that of the Commission for a “United States of Europe.” Mrs. Merkel’s approach to the reception of Syrian refugees in Germany and elsewhere within the EU has attracted much unfavourable comment in the United Kingdom, with most commentators welcoming the United Kingdom’s ability to opt out of European arrangements in this area.

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2. EU Enlargement

Narrowing Gap between Popular and Elite Attitudes

For many years there has been a gap between popular and elite attitudes towards the expansion of the European Union in this country. Elite attitudes have favoured the enlargement of the Union in the mistaken belief that such expansion would act as a brake on European integration. Popular attitudes have been more sceptical, fearing uncontrolled immigration and competition from the less economically developed parts of Europe. In recent years, this gap has narrowed, as political leaders have responded to the fears of an increasingly uneasy public opinion. It is an important element of Mr. Cameron’s renegotiation agenda to ensure long transition periods before future new members of the Union such as the Eastern Partnership countries enjoy free movement within the Union.

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Enlargement Put on Hold

Traditionally, British governments of all political complexions have favoured the accession of Turkey to the Union. The question is now however one about which most British governmental spokesmen are prepared to speak only in cautious and general terms. It is worth pointing out that the law passed by the last Coalition government to prescribe the holding of a referendum on future treaty changes excluded any such referendum for the accession of a new country to the European Union, even though accession would involve a treaty change to share further British national sovereignty. The obvious reason for this exception was the firm conviction of the law’s promoters that no referendum to enlarge the European Union could be won in this country for many years to come.

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This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.

This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 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.