Should Greece withdraw politely or be booted kicking and screaming from the Euro, many a Eurosceptic will breathe a sigh of relief. At last, they say, the out-of-touch elites have recognised what the enlightened citizenry predicted all along: the European project is a busted flush, and it is only a matter of time before the whole sorry edifice comes crashing down.
The British, in particular, have a habit of convincing themselves that Europe’s integration schemes are bound to fail under the weight of their own arrogant pretensions to political unity. When the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman announced a plan in 1950 to pool the coal and steel resources of France, Germany and other countries in Western Europe, the Attlee Labour government decided that Britain was better off outside. The UK remained aloof for economic and political reasons, but not least also out of the desire to hang on to the British Empire. The European Coal and Steel Community began operating without Britain in 1952.
Later, the British withdrew in a huff from the Messina process that led to the founding of the European Economic Community at the end of 1955, and so were absent at the creation of the EEC of the ‘six’ founding states via the Treaty of Rome in 1957. As the saying went, Britain’s ill-judged attempt to create a rival bloc in the form of the European Free Trade Association with six other EEC-sceptical states truly put Europe at ‘sixes and sevens’. It led to widespread resentment about Britain’s European ambitions in Paris and Berlin.
Just a few years on, the British had realised that the Commonwealth could no longer be relied upon as a prop to Britain’s global power pretensions. Moreover, Washington was not so subtly telling the government that it needed to think more ‘European’ to maintain its ‘special’ status in American foreign policy thinking. As a result, the UK government applied twice to join the EEC, in 1961 under the Macmillan Conservatives and then in 1967 under Wilson’s Labour government. On both occasions the French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the applications on the grounds that the EEC would become less ‘European’ (code for ‘less French’) with Britain inside.
Having finally joined the EEC under Heath in 1973 Britain has continued to play out the role of ‘awkward partner’. London has criticised from within many of the key policies and policy-making practices and ducked out of major policy initiatives the government of the day has felt impinge too far on national sovereignty, such as the Social Chapter and the single currency project. Even as a non-member of the Eurozone British politicians see no irony in zipping over to Brussels to tell the Europeans that they would all be better off being, well, more British about it all. They may or may not be correct in this, but the tone of their Gordon Brown-style hectoring of Europe’s finance ministers rarely goes down well, summoning what Douglas Hurd identifies as a ‘late Victorian’ attitude to European affairs: Britain as an ‘independent arbiter, ready with advice if nothing else’.
So, over the years the British have never really ‘gotten’ the European project. Neither the security imperative that has driven France nor the need for international rehabilitation that has motivated Germany have much resonance in Britain. Here, victory in wartime fed illusions of grandeur that persist to this day in the tabloid denigration (unique amongst the media of the 27 EU member states) of all manner of things related to Europe and the EU institutions. ‘It’s a Franco-German plot’, the papers cry! ‘It’s undemocratic’, they suggest, as if the Westminster model is a paragon of democratic transparency and openness.
There are many reasons to be sceptical about the EU way of doing things, of which the Euro and the Common Agricultural Policy are just two of the most prominent. However, it is too early to look ahead to the end of European integration. Jingoistic rejoicing needs to be tempered by the recognition that whilst the British may not believe their national interest is best served by being a fully committed member of the European club, none of Europe’s key leaders seem to be willing to give up on the EU just yet, even if the Euro collapses. The EU existed before the Euro and it is likely to continue to function after it. Perhaps for everyone’s sake Britain should unilaterally withdraw from the EU and go back to doing what the country has done so effectively since Victorian times: carping from the sidelines. Classically conservative or rashly retrograde? Time will tell.
Oliver Daddow is Reader in International Politics at the University of Leicester. His research interests are in British foreign policy, diplomatic history and political rhetoric. His books include New Labour and the European Union (Manchester University Press, 2011), Britain and Europe since 1945: Historiographical Perspectives on Integration (Manchester University Press, 2004) and, as co-editor, British Foreign Policy: The New Labour Years (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently working on a study of British foreign policy under the Coalition government.