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Martin Westlake

November 22nd, 2019

Condemned eternally to be the continent’s reactionary: the UK’s long drift away from the EU

5 comments | 25 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Martin Westlake

November 22nd, 2019

Condemned eternally to be the continent’s reactionary: the UK’s long drift away from the EU

5 comments | 25 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Britain was never a wholeheartedly enthusiastic member of the European Union, and its drift away from the project began decades before Brexit. In this adapted extract from the concluding chapter of his new book, Slipping Loose: The UK’s Long Drift Away From the European Union, Martin Westlake (LSE) finds Britain consistently reluctant to share the ‘visions’ of the project and the evolutionary nature and cumulative process of EU integration.

The conundrum at the heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, is that, although the death of Santiago Nasar was foreseen, nobody thought it was really going to happen and so nobody tried very hard to stop it. A conspiracy of circumstances combined and the fates converged inexorably. Yet nobody thought it would really happen. Was that what occurred with the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum decision? If, as this study has shown, a longer-term perspective is taken, then there would indeed appear to have been a series of inexorable trends that were leading the UK away from fully-integrated membership of the club, as it evolved. In that sense, the UK’s relationship with the European Union can be seen, in part, as a fraught accumulation of stand-offs, clashes, set-backs, vetoes, opt-outs, opt-ins and quixotic, stand-alone gestures punctuating the long, slow drift to which the title of my book alludes. A list of some of the more significant entries in this story of the awkward partner is long and shows also just how much the European Union was prepared to countenance to keep the UK in the Union – even at the high price, as the ill-fated February 2016 New Settlement demonstrated, of accepting that, ultimately, there could be more than a single currency within the EU and more than one destination for Member States to work towards within the overall European integration process.

royal navy ship
The Royal Navy amphibious ship HMS Bulwark arrives in Gibraltar in 2016. Photo: Royal Navy Media Archive via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

But such a list only tells part of the story. In the first place, to concentrate only on certain negative events and developments in isolation is to obscure the many positive aspects of UK membership over the years. Successive British governments and Council presidencies have energetically and effectively championed such policy areas as the single market, trade, competition, the Lisbon Strategy, climate change, the environment more generally and enlargement more particularly to great and good effect. The UK has a good record (much better than some of the founding Member States) in implementing directives and in respecting judgements of the European Court of Justice. And there have been a large number of influential British European politicians and civil servants over the years who have made significant positive contributions to the European integration process.

In the second place, the UK was far from being the only awkward partner among the EU Member States – a similar list for France, for example, would presumably include Charles de Gaulle’s 1963 and 1967 vetoes on the UK’s accession (the other five Member States were in favour both times), the 1966 ‘Empty Chair’ crisis, the September 1992 ‘petit oui’ referendum result about the Maastricht Treaty and the 29 May 2005 referendum result against the European Constitutional Treaty. A similar list for Denmark, to take another example, would include the referendum rejection of the Maastricht Treaty (50.7 per cent on 2 June 1992, later reversed after the negotiation of four opt-outs, with 56.7 per cent in favour on 18 May 1993), the 28 September 2000 referendum rejection (53.2 per cent against) of opting into the euro, and the 3 December 2015 referendum rejection (53.1 per cent against) of opting into Justice and Home Affairs. And a list for Ireland would include the 7 June 2001 referendum rejection of the Nice Treaty (53.9 per cent against, later reversed after the negotiation of statements on common defence policy and enhanced cooperation, with 62.9 per cent in favour on 19 October 2002) and the 12 June 2008 referendum rejection of the Lisbon Treaty (53.4 per cent against, later reversed after the negotiation of agreements on, inter alia, the size of the European Commission, with 67.1 per cent in favour on 2 October 2009). And several of the 2004/2007 wave of new Member States have given cause for concern on rule of law and independence of the judiciary issues.

In the third place, the UK is/was far from being the only Member State to have accumulated exceptional arrangements: currently, Ireland also enjoys an opt-out from the Schengen Agreement; Denmark also enjoys an opt-in to the euro; Denmark enjoys an opt-out from the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy; Denmark and Ireland also enjoy opt-outs from the EU’s area of freedom, justice and security; Denmark enjoys a legal guarantee about the compatibility of Danish and EU citizenship; and Ireland enjoys (through a protocol to the Lisbon Treaty) guarantees on security and defence, ethical issues and taxation. The ‘awkward’ records of Denmark and Ireland are explained to some extent by their constitutional requirements, but not entirely. When it comes to the EU budget, currently, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Denmark all enjoy some sort of budgetary abatement, together with the UK. (Germany first insisted on its budgetary abatement – an abatement on the abatement – at the same time as the UK won its abatement at the 1984 Fontainebleau European Council meeting.) The Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union are currently festooned with two Annexes, thirty-seven protocols, and sixty-five declarations, many of them designed to clarify awkwardnesses for domestic political audiences and hence facilitate acceptance and/or avoid rejection or, alternatively, to assert and guarantee some sort of exceptionalism.

In the light of all of that, was the UK not so very different from other Member States? Was it on the whole a good Member State with occasional bouts of boorishness? Was it, then, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s little girl who, ‘When she was good, … was very good indeed, But when she was bad … was horrid’? Or was Charles de Gaulle right in 1963, as is now sometimes argued? Is there, as de Gaulle reasoned, something inherent in the United Kingdom’s culture, economy, geography and history that has made it impossible for the country to moor fast alongside the Continent and become a fully-integrated member state? Is there some atavistic incompatibility? Over the years, a large number of academics, journalists and other observers have tried to understand and explain why the UK has been, variously, such an ‘awkward partner’ (George, 1990), ‘stranger in Europe’ (Wall, 2008), ‘half-in, half-out’ (Adonis, 2018) and forever missing chances (Denman, 1996). Charles Grant, writing some time before the referendum (Grant, 2008), and Vernon Bogdanor, writing three years after the referendum (Bogdanor, 2019) have provided particularly compelling overviews.

Most commentators agree that explanatory factors can be found variously in: the country’s history and geography (Bogdanor, 2019, pp. 2-8; Grant, 2008, pp. 2-3); the country’s constitution and in particular the sovereignty of Parliament (Bogdanor, 2019, pp. 51-86); the country’s ‘uniquely powerful and Eurosceptic popular press’ and its ‘steady drip, drip of anti-EU propaganda over many years’ (Grant, 2008, 3-5); the country’s parochial ruling classes, largely sharing inherently Eurosceptical views, with a result that ‘few political, media or business leaders have sought to lead and educate the British people on how they benefit from the European Union’ (Grant, 2008, pp. 5-6), and in the country’s electoral system and its governance, with its primary emphasis on government and opposition and not on national consensus. In that context, Anthony Teasdale has recently convincingly argued that:

It is difficult to forge a national consensus on the European issue because of the ‘constitutional driver’ of government and opposition. The opposition’s aim is to embarrass the government. The government’s aim is to avoid being embarrassed. For as long as that driver exists, it is difficult for the European issue not to be instrumentalised, and for as long as it is being instrumentalised a national consensus is impossible. (Teasdale, 2019)

There is surely truth in all of these arguments, but I would argue that there is also a more subliminal explanatory factor at work. In 1964 an American economist, Myriam Camps, published a detailed and perceptive contemporary history of the United Kingdom’s early (1955-1963) relations with what was to become the European Union. She noted then how British policymakers and politicians tended to shy away from the concept of ‘Europe’ as a cumulative process (Camps, 1964, p. 516) (as opposed to more traditional, static, treaty-based organisations such as the Council of Europe, which was largely a British creation). Both the cumulation and the process seemed, she observed, to be problematic to the British. As my chapter on economic and monetary union demonstrates the process was indeed based on an inexorable functional logic that frequently dragged politics in its wake. The choice was not more or less, but what sort of more. Perhaps, deep down, that has been the fundamental problem. Though Clement Attlee didn’t realise it back in 1950, nor Sir Anthony Eden in 1955, fundamental choices had already been made, and the cumulative process, once triggered, could never be halted. Europe was launched on the constitutional, political and economic equivalent of a schuss, where the best hope of getting to the finishing line is to bend the knees, tuck in the elbows, keep the skis straight and enjoy the sheer exhilaration of the ride.

As Helmut Schmidt famously observed, ‘Whoever has visions should go to the doctor.’ Yet, as this study has argued, the European integration process has frequently been driven by pragmatic, hard-headed visionaries – frequently French (think Jean Monnet, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Raymond Barre, François Mitterrand, Jacques Delors and, most recently, Emmanuel Macron). Their cumulative vision does not exclude national interest, but subsumes it. The British don’t ‘do’ visions and, because they don’t, they are condemned eternally to be the continent’s reactionaries. As Camps observed in 1963, in words that could equally be applied now:

The ‘Europeans’ have had one of the few compelling ideas of the post-war period and they have been fortunate in having highly intelligent, dedicated, and persuasive leaders who have not been afraid of taking enormous risks or of mixing vision with reality. Given the essentially negative character of so much of Britain’s post-war policy towards Europe, the lack of imagination, the timidity, and the half-heartedness of the few British initiatives, it is scarcely surprising that the boldness of the ‘Europeans’ shone so brightly by contrast that, at times, it tended to be blinding. (Camps, 1964, p. 517)

Even when the UK seemed to go with the flow – and even at times to lead it – the true picture was frequently less positive. Much has been made, for example, of the UK’s championing of the Single Market through the Single European Act, but the truth was that Margaret Thatcher was against an Intergovernmental Conference and against treaty amendments. Once she had been ‘comprehensively out-manoeuvred’ (Wall, 2019, p. 308) and out-voted at the Milan European Council, she then fought a fierce rear-guard action to limit treaty amendments and the all-important (for the realisation of the internal market) introduction of qualified majority voting as much as she possibly could. (Wall, 2019, pp. 308-328; de Boissieu et al, 2015, pp. 65-96; Denman, 1996, pp. 264-265) It was true that Arthur Cockfield, Margaret Thatcher’s pick as one of the UK’s two Commissioners, had drawn up the 15 June 1985 White Paper on the completion of the internal market (and he would later pay the price for allegedly having ‘gone native’ by not having his mandate renewed), but the drive to give the then European Community the tools it needed to legislate effectively was not provided by the UK.

In conversations with friends and colleagues over the years, I have heard this instinctive reactionary nature described as both a welcome sheet anchor – by those who share the UK’s reticence about the EU’s more federalist tendencies – and as an unwelcome ball-and-chain – by those impatient to go farther, faster. But, in the context of this book’s central claim, even by seeking to stand still, the UK was effectively drifting away.

On 20 January 2015, the Institute for Government held a ‘Witness Seminar’ on the theme of ‘Whitehall and Europe, 1979-2010.’ The transcript of the day-long exchange among the many distinguished participants is rich in insights. Towards the end of the proceedings, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former Head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s European Integration Department and former Head of Chancery at the UK Permanent Representation in Brussels, made the following remarks:

We haven’t got a strategy, not because we haven’t tried to get a strategy. Every four or five years, or before every IGC, officials are told to go off and write a strategy, ‘Why the hell are we in this bloody Union anyway,’ and they don’t come up with one because there is no sensible strategy that can be written for a country like this in an organisation like that. I mean, we’re always being told we should change and adapt, but we can’t, you know, we’re British, aren’t we? We don’t do that. (Institute for Government, 2015, p. 87)


This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Slipping Loose: The UK’s Long Drift Away From the European Union is published by Agenda Publishing.

Martin Westlake is a Visiting Professor in Practice at the LSE European Institute.


Adonis, Andrew, 2018, Half In, Half Out, Biteback Publishing, London

Bogdanor, Vernon, 2019, Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution, I.B. Tauris, London

Camps, Myriam, 1964, Britain and the European Community, 1955-1963, Princeton University Press, Princeton

De Boissieu, Pierre, and Jim Cloos, Poul Skytte Christoffersen, Luuk Van Middelaar, Jacques Keller-Noëllet, Guy Milton, Christine Roger, Thérèse Blanchet, David Galloway, André Gillisen, 2015, National Leaders and the Making of Europe: key episodes in the life of the European Council, John Harper Publishing, London

Denman, Roy, 1996, Missed Chances: Britain & Europe in the Twentieth Century, Cassell Publishers Ltd, London

George, Stephen, 1990, An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Grant, Charles, 2008, ‘Why is Britain Eurosceptic?’ Centre for European Reform, London, December

Institute for Government, 2015, ‘Witness Seminar: Whitehall and Europe’, London, 20 January

Teasdale, Anthony, 2019, Observations made at a conference on ‘What now for Britain and for Europe?’, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Brussels, 20 June

Wall, Stephen, 2008, A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Wall, Stephen, 2019, The Official History of Britain and the European Community, Volume III, The Tiger Unleashed, 1975-1985, Routledge, London and New York

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martin westlake

Martin Westlake

Martin Westlake is a Visiting Professor in Practice at the LSE European Institute.

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