Cameron's conundrum: He's being forced to confront the British people's mistrust of their fellow Europeans
Share with others:
Europe. It's a word that must send a chill down David Cameron's spine.
The British prime minister had hoped to keep a firm lid on the anti-European Union sentiments that have plagued his Conservative Party for decades.
He hadn't bargained for the growing popularity of the U.K. Independence Party. It doesn't have any members in the House of Commons. But it does hold 12 seats in the European Parliament in Brussels, and its promise to lead Britain out of the EU is proving attractive to Tory voters. If Mr. Cameron is to secure a majority at the next election, he needs a Europe policy that can win them back.
So, on Friday the prime minister will make a much-anticipated speech setting out his vision for Britain's relationship with the EU. True, he's expected to call for a re-negotiation of the terms of membership. But to the fury of many on the right of his party, he won't promise a referendum on leaving the Union altogether.
So why is Britain such a reluctant member of the European club?
In the early years we didn't think we needed it. We assumed that the Commonwealth, an association of former colonies, would effortlessly replace the Empire as the motor of British trade.
Ironically, it was Conservative politicians who first recognized that business would do better dealing with markets closer to home. The Labor Party was suspicious, worrying that a capitalist European Community would curb trade union activity and limit the welfare state.
The mistrust was mutual -- particularly among the French. President Charles de Gaulle accused Britain of a "deep-seated hostility" toward European construction and vetoed U.K. membership twice.
Britain eventually joined in 1973 under a Conservative government. But a decade later, growing numbers of Tories were having second thoughts. A gulf was opening across the English Channel. On one side Margaret Thatcher, cheering on American-style free market capitalism. On the other, the European Social Model with its emphasis on social justice and workers' rights.
When Mr. Cameron delivers his speech on Friday, Euro-skeptics want him to announce he's opting out of EU rules on criminal justice and laws like the one that dictates the maximum number of hours in the work week.
Even the mildest of EU-wary Britons are troubled by the volume and scope of legislation made in Brussels. From business regulation to directives on the transportation of cheese, they fear the ancient British principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty (a concept not recognized by the EU) has been badly undermined. Worse still, they believe the real intention of the EU's big players, Germany and France, is to turn Europe into a federal state like the USA.
The Brits have never been exactly subtle about their mistrust of their continental neighbors. Not so long ago, the late Tory MP (and 10th Earl of Sandwich) Victor Montagu bluntly declared, "We don't want to subject ourselves to a lot of Frogs and Huns."
In 1990, the popular tabloid The Sun was no less direct in denouncing Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission and an ardent advocate of a federal Europe. "Up Yours Delors" screamed the front page.
For the United Kingdom's older generation, the arguments are as much emotional as practical. Put simply, they're tired of bailing Europe out. They did it in two world wars. Now, with Britain a net contributor to the EU budget, they feel they're doing it again. And what do they get in return?
All generations feel that Britain is being short-changed. Agricultural policies are designed to help France preserve its quaint but inefficient rural life. Regional development funds that once helped poorer parts of Britain are now channeled to the recently signed-up eastern European states. Meanwhile, laborers from those states pour into Britain looking for jobs. Many of the skilled ones are a big economic asset. But they've also put huge pressures on public housing, and to a lesser extent, on the health service and schools.
As for the EU money that does flow Britain's way, nobody hears much about it. Many Brits would be surprised to learn that between 2000 and 2006, European Regional Development funds created more than 177,000 English jobs. Since 2010, small businesses in England's northeast have received $200 million in European loans.
Perhaps if governments -- Tory and Labor -- had talked more about the benefits of EU membership, Britons might feel more positive about it. Instead, the public hears about EU rules that regulate the size of eggs. They scratch their heads at the complexity of the bloated bureaucracy in Brussels. And they're outraged that each month, members of the European Parliament pack their briefcases and head to Strasbourg for a week -- France and Belgium's way of sharing the lucrative benefits of hosting Europe's politicians.
If David Cameron addresses blatant waste like that, some of the anti-Europe sentiment might fade. But not among the core of die-hard Tory opponents. They want a referendum on Europe with a simple question: In or Out?
First Published January 17, 2013 12:00 am