February 23, 2000
Donít rule it out
I usually aim for a pessimistic note in my columns, and I am loath to disappoint this time. However, I at least want to start this column by imparting some news of great joy. The British will not trade the pound for the Euro, if given a straight choice. I will return to the deceptively subtle caveat later. However, all other things being equal, the British will always refuse the Euro. It is not just that there is a massive majority of people against British adoption of the Euro. The rejection is deeper in that there has been a public debate (two sides rather than the debates in much of the Continent where only one side get to talk). It is now clear that the British are against full participation in the European project, and it is equally clear that the European project demands that all the participants be fully engaged.
It is now becoming clear to many that the European integration process will not stop until every cultural vestige of "Englishness" is subsumed into the greater European mush. When the imperial system of measures is ruled illegal, (amazing but true) then even the least informed begin to wonder whether Europe is merely a free trade zone, or something more sinister. The question then arises, will the British follow the logical consequence of their opposition to further integration, and come out of the EU altogether?
One of the unreported developments in British politics has been the growth of overtly anti-European Union groups in the UK. The media have focussed on other matters, the moderate anti-Single currency crowd, the slow movement of the Conservatives towards a coherent Euro-scepticism and the collapse of the pro-Single Currency camp. The concentration on the dead duck of a Single Currency tends to obscure the wider picture Ė the fact that an influential, growing and active minority wants to withdraw totally from the European Union. Will this groundswell of opinion force Britain out of the EU in a tidal wave of popular revulsion? Will the people power of Tallinn, Leipzig and Prague show itself in London, Birmingham and Manchester, with totally new and unspoiled parties gaining power by acclamation? Not bloody likely. However, despair not, Englandís time will surely come.
Why am I so confident that English independence will again be on the agenda (if it is not the inevitable choice)? I simply believe that England is unsuitable for the EU. If you write in a critical way of the French governing class, then you had better be prepared to duck for cover, if you are English. The most abusive and/or critical e-mails I get are from the tiny antiwar.com readership in continental Europe. The sheer fact is that the continental elites dislike the British. How else would one explain the resigned tolerance towards the French, German or Spanish transgressions of EU "law", while there is unmitigated fury if the British try to do the same? De Gaulle was right, Europe is continental and Britain is maritime; both England and Europe would be better off if England left.
There are few English people who want Britain to be members of the common European currency. One of the few is Tony Blair. Few doubt that he will do anything to bring in the Euro. One of these methods may be (in fact is very likely to be) to hold a referendum not on submergence into Economic and Monetary Union; instead he will hold it on the subject of continued membership of the European Union. The calculation will be that the British are naturally more conservative, and while they may not be willing to lose their own currency they will also be unwilling to lose membership of the European Union. Related to this is a fear that the British will not be able to go it alone in the big ugly world. The conventional wisdom is that the British, if given the choice of independence or continued membership of the EU, on whatever terms, will choose the EU as they did in 1975. This may be conventional, but it could also prove wrong. In 1975, the Pro-EU forces outspent the anti-EU campaign by twenty times. Thatís right, twenty times. No one believes that this imbalance can occur again. The government has even moved to ensure that the anti-Euro campaign will be limited in its expenditure, and will only be able to spend a third of any pro-Euro campaign. Although this is both a travesty of democracy and therefore entirely predictable from this bunch of petty-fascist thugs, it shows that opposition to the EU is so strong that it now needs to be legally restricted. This was not the case in 1975. What happens if the vote does not turn out as the government requires? There may be no option but to leave (although the politicians will try to wriggle out of this). It could turn out that Tony Blair will give Britain back its independence, although please do not tell him this.
There is a more likely way in which Britain may leave the European Union. This is after a Conservative victory. Many people dismiss a Tory victory as unlikely, but this is hardly the case. The grumbling about Blair has started, and after two years grace the British people are not very forgiving. Apart from the issue of Europe, on which Labour is on the wrong side of public opinion, the British people have finally worked out that Labour are taxing them, and taxing them in dishonest ways. They are also impatient at the fact that despite promises the Health Service and the transport system are still in a third world state. Moreover, they are waking up to the distasteful arrogance of their new masters. The Labour vote seems to be strong at the moment but is beset by the problem that the core vote is far less willing to go out for a party they do not feel is theirs. In addition, new Labour voters are getting restive and looking at their old home of the Conservative Party. This pincer movement of apathetic traditionalists and feckless Tory converts is potentially fatal, as it would be very hard to get both groups back at the same time. Added to this is the fact that Labour relied very heavily on tactical voting from the other left-wing party, the Liberal Democrats; and the Tories found that four million of their voters stayed at home or voted for Eurosceptic parties. Neither factor will pertain so strongly at the next election. The remarkable fact is that even if the opinion polls stay solid with a 20% lead, Labour could lose its majority (as it did in the European Parliament elections).
A Tory win does not automatically mean British withdrawal. Indeed the Conservative Party is committed to remaining in the European Union. But the Tory vision of the European Union, basically a European version of NAFTA, is not the on offer in the EU, and the more intelligent Tories know this - and the Tory leader William Hague is not stupid. The present Tory policy at the moment seems to be to oppose all future forms of federation, push for British opt outs in a growing range of areas and allow the rest of Europe to federate further without British interference. The result, they calculate, would be either formal expulsion from the European Union or a de-facto exit from the EU with a free trading relationship with the Continent. I am not a believer that this is on offer, simply because the European Union now has the power to simply kill British rights under the infamous Article 7 of the Amsterdam Treaty. However, this is likely to lead to little success unless the British Army is disarmed first, or the Eurocorps are stationed on British soil. The question that is nagging many Eurosceptics is "do the Tories actually believe in the reassertion of British sovereignty", even to the point of withdrawal if necessary. I believe this does not matter, as the Tories know that during their last time in power they broke too many promises, and so they will have to claw back some sovereignty, or else get used to the electoral wilderness. Added to this is the fact that many of the new intake of MPs will be more eurosceptic than ever before. Even if they do not intend to withdraw (and, in public, they insist that they do not) their vision of a Europe of free states is in sharp contradiction to the functionalist mush of the European Union.
The question I posed in the title "Will Britain ever leave the EU?" is not really a proper question as in the end Britain will leave any way. However, the price of continued membership for more than a decade will be too heavy a burden. The strains on the EU will soon become unbearable, whether they are economic or cultural. To my knowledge, every voluntary federation of states, with the sole exception of Australia, has at one time or another come to blows, and the European Union will be no different. The matter will then come down to force and national loyalties. In the 1860s in Germany and the USA wars were won by the central government because of (albeit loose) ties of culture and language. The Central government built a national loyalty that superseded the regional loyalties of the southerners. However, the issue of Europe is different, for the French, the Germans and the Italians have little in common apart from corruption, and that little is understood in different languages. The break up of Europe will not be due to the undoing of common bonds, but to their very absence.
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