Elections likely to leave UK more eurosceptical

From left to right: David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown.

By Floris van Straaten in London

The British will elect a new parliament this Thursday. The winners of the elections remain uncertain, but EU relations are a likely loser.

Gordon Brown, on what is probably his last day as British prime minister, will not be remembered as a great europhile. He simply did not believe the European continent had much to teach him.

Brown speaks no language other than English, but in his days as chancellor of the exchequer he earned a reputation at the EU's headquarters in Brussels for taking off his headphones while others were speaking, which left him unable to hear the interpreters' translation. When he himself spoke, it was mainly to sing praises of the Anglo-Saxon approach in general, and his own in particular.

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As prime minister, in the last three years, his relations with the rest of Europe have improved somewhat. The way he dealt with the financial crisis has increased his standing. Indirectly, his Conservative Party opponent, David Cameron, also helped stir warm feelings for Brown in Europe. Considering the alternative, many European government leaders chose to give Brown his way, hoping to keep Cameron and his supporters out of 10 Downing Street.

Yet Cameron could soon be prime minister. Will that harm the UK's relationship with the European Union? Not necessarily. "Cameron may be a eurosceptic, he is also a realist," said Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank. "He has already indicated he wants to let the European issue lie for the time being." If the Tories win enough seats to govern alone, the budget deficit will devour most of their attention. Measured at 11.6 percent of GDP in the last budget year, it is one of the highest in Europe.

A neutral coalition

There is also a chance the Conservatives will need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the only unequivocally pro-European party in the UK. Liberal Democrat party leader, Nick Clegg, worked for years for the European Commission and was a member of the European parliament. He would never accept a political course that was extremely sceptical of the EU, although it is equally unlikely that Cameron would tolerate a pro-European one. Such a coalition would probably meet halfway and take a neutral approach to this sensitive issue. But it could also become a hotbed for severe internal conflict.

Any hopes that the British would warm to the idea of European cooperation have long been dashed by reality. "British scepticism towards Europe has only grown in recent years," said Denis MacShane, a member of parliament who served as minister of state for Europe under Tony Blair. "But we are no exception in that respect. Other European states are also seeing a renationalisation of politics."

But the British Conservative Party knows no equal in Europe when it comes to its reservations about the European project. "Twenty years ago, a lot of prominent Tories were pro-European," Tilford recalled. "Now, to stand a living chance of being selected as a Conservative MP, you have to be eurosceptic."

The UK is also the only nation where a party is participating in national elections whose only goal is to end its EU membership, the UKIP. Nowhere else are the newspapers so vocal in their disapproval of Europe either.

Tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail infallibly paint a picture of Brussels as hell-bent on eradicating the United Kingdom. Both papers adamantly opposed the Treaty of Lisbon, an attempt to create a more decisive EU. Alongside the Tories, they insisted a referendum be held on the matter. Brown ignored their demands.

The rallying cry of British eurosceptics was aptly summarised by Margaret Thatcher shortly after she had been forced to step down. "My friends, we are quite the best country in Europe," she then told an audience of Scottish Tories at a conference in Blackpool. "In my lifetime, all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world."

A history of ambivalence

The British have always felt ambivalently about European cooperation. As a colonial power with a global outlook, Britain refused to focus exclusively on the rest of Europe. Only in 1973 did they reluctantly join the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU's predecessor. "The UK was the only nation that joined because we felt we had no other choice," Nick Clegg told NRC Handelsblad in 2008. "For us it wasn't a sign of strength, but of weakness."

Even after the British had finally joined the EEC, the cooperation remained riddled with problems. One important source of conflict was that the British immediately became the biggest financial contributor to the EEC. The nation's small, relatively efficient, agricultural sector had little room to profit from most European subsidies. It cost Thatcher years to win her notorious - or celebrated, depending on your point of view - 'rebate', which returned part of the UK's contribution to Europe back into British pockets.

The UK participation in the European Exchange Rate System, a predecessor to the common currency, ended in disaster when the British government was forced to leave the ERS on September 16, 1992, under heavy pressure from financial markets. The Conservatives, who were in power at the time, were left traumatised. "That also did a lot to hurt relations with Europe," Tilford ventured.

Euro: probably not

The current Conservative leader, David Cameron, witnessed the fiasco up close as an adviser to the then chancellor of the exchequer, Norman Lamont. This could explain why Cameron was so clear in stating that the UK would never join the euro on his watch last week during the televised debate with rivals Brown and Clegg. Brown has also expressed great reluctance to do so. Clegg is alone in his –conditional– support for joining the common currency.

Expectations were high in 1997 when Tony Blair became prime minister with a massive voter mandate. Blair was the most europhile prime minister since Edward Heath (in office from 1970 to 1974) who was an outspoken advocate of the euro and spoke fluent French. Ironically, it was Blair's support of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to a schism of sorts in Europe. Moreover, Blair proved unable to overcome his chancellor Brown's opposition to the euro.

Were 13 years of Labour rule a complete disappointment for Europe then? Not according to MacShane. He pointed out that Blair initiated European cooperation in the areas of defence and foreign policy. The Labour government was also one of the fiercest proponents of the EU's eastward expansion. "Under Labour rule, Great Britain opened up its doors further to workers from the new member states than anyone else," MacShane said. "Hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken up residence here, which has been a great boost to European cooperation, both economically and culturally speaking."

The last days of the Labour era seem to be upon us. By tomorrow, we will see the first glimpse of what will come after it. Few in London, however, think a pro-European shift is in the making.

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