'There is a tremendous sense of a missed opportunity in the UK'

Timothy Garton Ash.
By Marc Leijendekker for NRC

British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash has written extensively on international relations in general and European politics in particular.

In the run-up to the European elections, what issues are being debated in the United Kingdom?

"Unfortunately, as in many other countries, the European elections here are not about Europe. They are, to the extent that they feature at all, mainly about a verdict on Gordon Brown's government and its popularity, which is not very great at the moment. I would expect a low turnout, and my guess is that of all the people voting, 70 to 80 percent would vote on national issues. Only the small rest would take European questions into account, for example the Lisbon Treaty."

A key issue in European politics is market ideology, especially with the financial crisis. In the United Kingdom, is there debate about whether the market ideology of Brussels needs to be amended?

"The only country in Europe that doesn’t see the European Commission as an engine of Anglosaxon-style liberalisation is Britain itself. So that specific idea of Brussels being neo-liberal is not a widespread conception here. On the other hand, when discussing economics we should note that in Britain, for the first time in a long time there is some debate about joining the euro and the euro-zone. Should Britain adopt the euro? The financial crisis has shifted the terms of this debate in all sorts of ways. On the one hand, people feel that inside the euro-zone there is safety in numbers. On the other hand, the fact that the pound has been allowed to devalue has helped British manufacturers to more or less maintain their capacity – and in that sense, the situation is certainly different from that in Iceland or Ireland."

Another key issue is euro-scepticism. What is the general attitude in Britain towards Europe?

"First of all: for most European countries, the European Union has been, to a large part, a means of getting away from war or dictatorship. For Britain, joining Europe was mostly about getting out of an economic decline and about maintaining political influence.

"Within the Conservative Party, euro-scepticism is part of the accepted common ground. In his domestic policy, party leader David Cameron is quite blairite, following policies set out by former prime minister Tony Blair. But they are completely different [when it comes to] European policy. Let's not forget that Cameron won the leadership of the Conservative party by promising to take the party's euro-parliamentarians out of the liberal group in the European parliament. And his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, is genuinely euro-sceptic. The real issue here is what happens in the next national elections, next year. Those are likely to bring a euro-sceptic government into power. That could really set us back.

"There is a far-reaching consensus within the Conservative party about the need to maintain this euro-scepticism. This is far less so within Labour. Outside Britain, there is this widespread idea that l’angleterre profonde is deeply distrustful of Europe. That is not true. Opinion polls show that public opinion is far more in favour of Europe than generally accepted.

"There is a tremendous sense of a missed opportunity in the Blair years. He was in power for 12 years, which is a long time, and thus had time to develop a more constructive relationship with Europe. He set out to resolve the British historic ambiguity about Europe, but he has failed to to do so. Here, we have seen a lack of leadership. The Blair government believed, and Labour still believes, that you cannot win British elections against euro-sceptic media such as the Sun, owned by the notoriously euro-sceptic tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, where the editors are very doubtful about Europe."

How would voters in the United Kingdom like the EU to develop? Would they support a joint foreign policy?

"That would be a most important project, one that would be impossible without the participation of Britain, with its economic and political reach and its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. But there is a strong desire to maintain our own policy. Gordon Brown is already less enthusiastic about a common foreign policy than Blair was. Maybe what the French call la force des choses is going to change this. That would make the Brown government or later a Cameron government understand that you cannot realise your goals in such areas as climate change and the relationship with Russia on your own.

"But unfortunately, there are counter-forces. After their unification, the Germans started to talk about 'normalisation'. They defined that as being more like France and Britain. I am afraid that is what you see happening: Germany is looking more at its own interest. We Brits and the French have no right to complain, but for the large European picture, that is very troubling.

"The intellectual change has been made: we understand that we cannot tackle problems on our own. But translating that into policy is another matter. Even this financial crisis is not yet so immediate and urgent. It is not like the Red Army occupying half of Europe. There is no frontal, immediate and elemental threat. That is part of the problem: we face a slow moving set of challenges, and therefore many politicians don't feel a sense of urgency."

Any anecdotes in the campaign for the European elections in Britain?

"I was at a breakfast meeting with a group of well-informed pro-European British, when a leading politician said that the election campaign should be about Europe. A hollow laughter went around the table. In a way, that tells it all."

UK, year of EU entry: 1973

Political system: constitutional monarchy

Capital city: London

Total area: 244 820 km²

Population: 60.4 million

Currency: pound sterling

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