There is one number that strikes at the heart of the problem: 29 percent. Not even one in three Britons trusts European Union institutions. Citizens’ confidence in the E.U. is only lower in crisis-ridden Greece, according to a survey by the European Commission.
There are many reasons for British euroskepticism, which will culminate in two weeks with the referendum on European Union membership. These include the country’s history, its island geography and its unique awareness of national sovereignty. But none of this can fully explain why, now of all times, the country is on the brink of leaving the European Union.
The momentum towards the referendum was accelerated by a series of domestic political failures. Because the government invested too little money in the healthcare and education system, hospitals and schools are now stretched to their limits. Complicated building and planning laws have worsened the housing shortage in parts of the country. Finally, costly bank bailouts in the course of the financial crisis have shaken confidence in the economic system.
Britain lacks the emotional ties to European integration that glues the alliance together in continental Europe which was devastated by two world wars.
All of these developments create a climate of fear, amplified by perceptions of a growing number of immigrants. Not surprisingly, the subject of immigration currently dominates the television debates between politicians.
Portions of the political class are not looking to Westminster for the source of the country’s problems, but to Brussels instead. The European Union is an easy scapegoat, which can be used to distract from politicians’ own mistakes.
These diversions are falling on sympathetic ears, partly because of a misguided nostalgia among many Britons. The older generation struggles with the fact that the country no longer has the global influence it once enjoyed. A statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the 1960s still rings true today: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”
Great Britain only reluctantly fell into line with European integration. And unlike Germany and France, it never viewed Europe as a political project to safeguard peace. Instead, its primary motives were economic. In 1957, Great Britain distanced itself from the establishment of the European Economic Community. This only changed when the economic benefits became unmistakable. The country finally joined in 1973.
As a latecomer, however, Great Britain has retained its skepticism toward the European project. It lacks the emotional ties to European integration that glues the alliance together in Continental Europe, which was devastated by two world wars. The troubled relationship was reflected in tense battles between then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Brussels in the 1980s, when she secured a rebate on the country’s budget contribution.
Paradoxically, it is precisely Prime Minister Thatcher’s policy that unravels E.U. opponents key arguments. The Iron Lady demonstrated how the country, despite its E.U. membership, could shape key aspects of its own fate and absolutely did not have to surrender its sovereignty to Brussels. Like no other prime minister, Mrs. Thatcher shook up the economy through privatization and deregulation, paving the way for London’s rise to become Europe’s financial center. Great Britain has also preserved its autonomy in many other areas, such as currency.
Equally abstruse is Brexit proponents’ argument that Great Britain can only prosper without being shackled by Brussels, and can then expand its economic relations with countries like China. But countries like Germany are already demonstrating that this plan can also work as an E.U. member. To prosper, a country needs companies with strong export products. In Great Britain, however, politicians have neglected industry.
On the contentious subject of immigration from other E.U. countries, especially from Eastern Europe, the British also play down their own responsibility. They are quick to forget that it was the British government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair that pushed for the European Union’s expansion eastward and wanted no restrictions on the free movement of workers from Central and Eastern Europe.
The polls show opinion is clearly split on the E.U. referendum. But one thing is clear: Even if the majority votes against a Brexit and prefers the status quo out of fear of further changes, euro-skepticism will continue among sizable slices of the population – as long as lawmakers do not solve the problems they have created.
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