To the English, continental Europe has been, alternately, a place to avoid, a place to wage war and a place to shop. It has seldom been a place to love. Even outside of England’s most xenophobic pockets, few words can curl lips into a sneer as reliably as “Europe.” In the 1990s, as an irritated British public increasingly chafes under the political collar of the European Union (EU), “Europe” now conjures yet another image: one of meddling bureaucrats at the EU headquarters in Brussels run amok, lecturing national legislatures on how to govern their own people.
The list of grievances seems endless. Take last year’s European Commission Regulation No. 2257/94, which prohibits the sale of bananas with “abnormal curvature.” English pubs rocked with derisive laughter over that one. But British employers were not laughing in December when the country’s highest court ruled that European law required them to grant more generous benefits to part-time workers. Employment Secretary Michael Portillo, a well-known “Euroskeptic,” angrily
British anger grows with closer European ties
predicted that the added financial burden on businesses would lead to higher domestic unemployment.
When the European Commission on Human Rights ruled last month that Britain could no longer keep juvenile murderers in jail for as long as the government pleased, the Euroskeptics grumbled again. Citing a hypothetical example, they demanded to know whether European judges would really be allowed to override British politicians in determining the prison sentences of the two preteens who killed toddler James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993. “Each week brings another
example of European institutions accumulating powers,” complained Conservative backbencher William Cash, whose anti-European stance has made him an outspoken critic of his own government. ‘We don’t govern ourselves the way we used to, and the only way out is to say ‘No’ to Europe before we find that the national Parliament has been emasculated.” Added Cash emphatically: “The British people don’t want this.”
Indeed, each new writ from Brussels seems to increase anti-union sentiment. The issue of European integration is centre stage in British politics as it has not been since the bitter battle leading to the country’s 1973 entry into what was then called the European Economic Community. And its resurgence— ironically, at a time when the Channel Tunnel has made travel back and forth to the Continent easier than ever—threatens to break John Major’s already unpopular government, which is hopelessly divided over the merits of further European integration. In his year-end message to Tory party members, Major warned that European union was
the “one issue above all others which threatens to destroy our party from within.”
That debate comes at a crucial time in the continent-wide march to European federalism: over the next two years, the member countries of the EU— with the addition of Austria, Finland and Sweden on Jan. 1, there are now 15—will decide how much power they will hand over to European bodies such as the European Parliament based in Strasbourg, France. In particular, they must choose whether to proceed with the creation of a single European currency—to be called the ecu, for European Currency Unit— by the end of the decade, which would herald a dramatic shift of economic power away from national governments to a European central bank.
To true believers, there was always an ideological certainty about European federalism: its time would come, inevitably and inexorably. Most of its leading advocates belonged to the gents eration whose views were I shaped by this century’s two catz aclysmic wars. Their preoccupation was to avoid a third. And their solution was to contain national ambitions inside a broader European interest, beginning with the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which created the European Community.
Since then, the tide of popular support for union has risen and fallen many times. These days, however, it is getting harder to find champions of the federalist cause. French President François Mitterrand, a pillar of the EU during his 14 years in power, is spending his final days in office obsessively tidying his personal historical record. His replacement after next May’s elections is almost certain to come from the ranks of French nationalists, in tune with French voters who are increasingly suspicious of the EU. (For one thing, the powerful French farm lobby worries that the union’s continued expansion will one day bring the huge Polish agricultural economy into the union.) France’s leading proponent of European federalism, Jacques Delors, is set to retire this month after 10 years as EU president, and recently balked at running for the French presidency. Delors’s refusal was due, in large part, to his belief that his candidacy would turn the presidential race into a shadow referendum on European union—a faceoff he believed he would lose.
“The only politician who is really still pushing the federal case is [German chancellor] Helmut Kohl, and even in Germany there are growing reservations about it,” said Gordon Smith, professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics. “Kohl is holding to the official line
of support for Europe for now. But he is Europe’s smartest politician, and he never pushes for something beyond what is workable.” Across the Continent, almost all the emerging voices are anti-European crusaders. One of the most prominent, British financier Sir James Goldsmith, currently tops French nonfiction best-seller lists with The Trap, which warns that integration is leading Europe to economic Armageddon. And MPs like Cash, once dismissed as cranks, are suddenly showing up on national talk shows, heralded as beacons of a new populism. Even Britain’s Labour Party, which holds a commanding 39-point lead over the Tories in opinion polls, has softened its traditional pro-European stance in the face of the hostile mood. In the past, Labour supporters have looked to Europe as a backdoor route to bringing social reforms
bate above the sensationalism that greets such incidents as the banana directive. “Some of the fears are fantastical,” he said. “But in a sober debate, if the British people were asked to choose between a strong and stable Euro-currency, and a perpetually devaluing pound sterling, I have no doubt they will choose the Euro-currency.”
There is still a strain of historical determinism to the pro-federal argument. “There are huge cultural and economic changes upon us, and it is absurd to think national governments can manage these changes alone,” said Duff. He also argues that there are few real “national” interests at stake. “The notion of a British interest in the Community is nonsense,” he said. “But there is a farmers’ interest, an employers’ interest, an architects’ interest.”
The EU, to be sure, still has friends and
to the country. But, said Labour Leader Tony Blair in a year-end television interview with David Frost, “the days of this being decided by political elites are over. If we’re going to take this country further into a more integrated Europe, it has to be done with the consent of the people.”
That could mean a national referendum, an idea currently being bandied about by Major as a way of avoiding an internal party showdown over the EU. Most Euroskeptics believe that they could win a referendum. Opinion polls, at this stage, bear that out. A survey in late November showed those Britons opposed to a single currency running 23 points ahead of those in favor. “The longer the debate goes on, the more the anti-European hand is strengthened,” said polling analyst Roger Mortimore.
Despite that, the pro-European forces insist that they, too, would welcome a referendum. “British federalists are looking forward to the scrap,” said Andrew Duff, director of the London-based Federal Trust. Duff argues that only a full public airing can lift the de-
supporters. The appeal of a bigger market was what attracted Britain to the Community in the 1970s, just as it now entices upwardly mobile nations such as the Czech Republic. Poorer countries on the fringe, such as Greece and Ireland, also see lucrative benefits in membership. And the EU remains popular in those parts of Europe where regional loyalties are especially strong—Scotland and northern Italy, for example. For people in those areas, the union represents a more palatable alternative to existing national governments.
But Europe does appear poised for a great debate over the political shape it will take into the next century. “It will be a bloody argument, but we need to be shaken up,” said Duff. The question is whether the nationalism that has been the hallmark of European history takes precedence, or whether, as the legal sage Lord Denning wrote in 1974, European unity is like an “incoming tide that cannot be held back.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.