The UK’s referendum on EU membership may well be one of the main stories of 2016, with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently suggesting that it could be held as early as the summer. Montserrat Guibernau writes on how we can conceive of Euroscepticism in both the UK and other EU countries. She writes that understanding Euroscepticism requires an account of a range of different elements, including identity, attitudes toward globalisation, and responses to diversity within nation states.
The UK and the EU are both changing. The UK stands as a world power and, as such, it continues to look for recognition while maintaining a distinct identity and status, which includes a special relationship with the United States. In turn, the EU embraces a considerable number of nation states, which, so far, have been prepared to relinquish some aspects of their own jealously guarded sovereignty in order to benefit from membership of an economically prosperous and dynamic internal market, which has turned the EU into a phenomenally successful economic global player.
However, the depth of the economic crisis, exemplified by Greece, has brought instability and it seriously threatens the survival of the EU, as we know it. As a result, Euroscepticism, defined as criticism of the EU and opposition to the process of political European integration, is currently rising in both the UK and in the EU.
Yet, in some cases, nation states employ the EU as an excuse for action or inaction within the domestic arena and, at times, they even use it as a scapegoat, thus fuelling nationalism and reinforcing national identity. The variety of Euroscepticisms within the EU confirms the co-existence of different political cultures among EU member-states. At present, the economic crisis has contributed to highlighting the relevance of Euroscepticism in Britain and the EU.
Euroscepticism in not restricted to wealthy countries such as the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, or Finland. On the contrary, the economic down turn has prompted the rise of Euroscepticism in Greece and Spain, whose position towards the EU has shifted from enthusiasm to deep disappointment. There is even resentment and anger about the contrast between what many regard as a wealthy Germany, that has enormously benefited from the EU and the creation of the euro, and a poor South now struggling to survive amid corruption scandals and very high unemployment, in particular, among young people.
Eurosceptic views in the UK question and reject the idea of a political union among the member states of the EU and they stand against further political integration. However, they support the idea of a common European market. Eurosceptic views defend the exceptional and unique character of Britishness; this refers to the identity of the nation and its sense of forming a distinct community. In some instances, Euroscepticism is a response to ‘too much’ diversity; an attempt to control social and political change, to preserve the past and protect a way of life that is fading away.
European identity was initially conceived as a top-down institutionally generated identity designed to foster solidarity bonds among a diverse population. It was also aimed at nurturing some incipient feelings of loyalty towards the EU. However, the economic crisis has changed this, and now we are witnessing a dangerous mixture of resentment about corruption, bad management, failed expectations of prosperity and progress, and, in some instances, a retreat to authoritarian politics and style, pointing at division rather than solidarity among European peoples. We are living in a world overwhelmed by diversity and faced with phenomenal challenges such as those posed by climate change, social inequality, poverty, illiteracy, terrorism and war.
In the West, material progress is considered a key objective for millions of people that will never be able to achieve it. In this environment, resentment, conflict and violence encounter a fertile ground. It is in the world of scarcity and limited resources that democracy, solidarity and freedom are in danger of being replaced by authoritarian politics. This brand of politics is almost invariably eager to point at those regarded as different as responsible for society’s ills: an easy scapegoat attacked under the (fictional) pretext that it will save and protect the community.
Currently, identity and belonging are acquiring unprecedented power within a fluid environment marked by high levels of uncertainty about the future. Identity refers to the set of attributes that make each person unique, each community different, and these attributes are, in turn, the outcome of a complex mesh of exchanges and relationships involving a range of people, situations, values, ideologies and objectives.
Belonging implies some form of reciprocal commitment between the individual and the group. For instance, citizens identify with ‘their’ nation, and it is within its boundaries that they enjoy certain rights. In return, the nation demands loyalty, and in extreme circumstances, such as war, citizens are compelled to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation. Belonging fosters an emotional attachment; it prompts the expansion of the individual’s personality to embrace the attributes of the group, to be loyal and obedient to it. In return, the group offers a ‘home’, a familiar space – physical, virtual or imagined – where individuals share common interests, values and principles or a project.
Above all Euroscepticism firmly believes that EU integration weakens the UK, since it attempts to control social and political change with the aim of preserving the image of a golden past. However, as painful as it may be, we have to recognise that there is no way back. The varieties of Euroscepticism within the EU confirm the co-existence of dissimilar political cultures closely connected with a range of distinct historical backgrounds among EU member states.
There are a number of key questions implied by these issues. First,to what extent is Euroscepticism a response to ‘too much’ diversity? Is it an attempt to fix identity at a time when globalisation and technological progress make that impossible? Alternatively, in what ways has EU membership transformed the UK’s view of the EU? Does the UK belong to the EU and, relatedly, what are the signs and the markers of belonging to the EU? These are questions which will be touched upon as part of a new research project, ‘Contrasting Euroscepticisms in the UK and the EU’.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Montserrat Guibernau – Queen Mary University of London
Montserrat Guibernau is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Another typical article that attempts to blame British Euroscepticism squarely on xenophobia.
There are many reasons why some British people are Eurosceptic, these include, but are not limited to, the mess that the EU has made of the recent, and ongoing, mass illegal migration of migrants into the EU, the completely unacceptable fact of trying to impose migrant quotas on member states, the EU treatment of Greece and Portugal, the concept of a Euro state, the waste of money and the fact that Britain is a net contributor to the EU.
Roll on the referendum
Several of the reasons you’ve listed have little if anything to do with the UK’s referendum. It makes virtually no difference to the migrant/refugee crisis if the UK leaves or stays in the European Union. If we leave we’re no less or more at risk from it as we already have border controls and those entering the EU illegally have no free movement rights. About the best you could argue in that context is a convoluted case about some of those entering at present becoming EU citizens years/decades from now and deciding to move to the UK.
On migrant quotas the situation is identical: we aren’t participating in them and it’s impossible to force us to do so. The implication of your argument – that we should leave the EU to prevent migrant quotas – is a complete non-sequitur. If anything, leaving the EU makes us less likely to prevent migrant quotas (if that’s our intention) because we’d no longer have any influence over internal EU decisions.
The treatment of Greece and Portugal during the Eurozone crisis is another example of an issue that’s almost entirely irrelevant (beyond crude emotive rhetoric) to a factual argument about the costs and benefits of the UK staying in the European Union. We aren’t in the euro and our influence over the issue sinks to zero if we leave. You also seem to support debt restructuring for Greece and Portugal (in essence large fiscal transfers from richer member states to poorer ones) yet seem to think the roughly 0.5% of GDP net the UK contributes to the EU budget is a reason to leave.
These aren’t so much arguments as they are crude soundbites and if you want to win the referendum I suggest you’ll have to do a bit better than that.
Britain is not part of the continent.
Our history with the continent is primarily one of conflict and every time a single power block has taken over most of the continent it has turned its gaze towards us.
We don’t trust the continentals. We don’t particularly like most of them.
But most importantly we don’t want to be ruled by them. That’s happened too many times in our history for us to feel comfortable about allowing it again.
It doesn’t help that our legal traditions are incompatible as well.
We along with the Irish are common law nations while the continentals are all derived from the Napoleonic code.
Unfortunately even if we do vote to leave it won’t be too long befor the EU tries to find a way to force us back in on. Or attacks us.
So for us it might be better to stay in the EU and set out to sabotage it as much as possible from the inside so it falls apart.
“We don’t trust the continentals. We don’t particularly like most of them. But most importantly we don’t want to be ruled by them. That’s happened too many times in our history for us to feel comfortable about allowing it again.”
When in modern British history have we been “ruled by continentals”? There hasn’t been a successful invasion of the British Isles since 1066 and prior to that there was barely anything that resembled the modern UK in existence. In fact those invaders (the Normans) are just as much a part of our history as what came before.
We’re not ruled by Europe now and we never have been. What we’ve always done is try to influence the continent and being part of the EU is entirely consistent with that.