CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT
European Research Group
Workshop: National Identity and Euroscepticism: A Comparison Between France and the United Kingdom Friday 13 May 2005
‘E with much less U’: or ‘No More E or U’? British Eurosceptic Exceptionalism After Enlargement
David Baker Department of Politics and International Studies University of Warwick
Synopsis: While the substance of nation state sovereignty has now greatly diminished within the EU (albeit as democratic accountability has risen) the symbols of nation statehood, especially the strong sense of historical national solidarity, and the legitimating forces of representation and accountability, remain largely rooted in old nation state structures and linked national political cultures. This is particularly true for Britain, where (in England at least) UK-wide parliamentary sovereignty remains the only widelyaccepted legitimate source of sovereignty to important sections of the political class, socio-economic elites and citizens alike. The paper demonstrates that British ‘sovereignty’ is often used interchangeably with British ‘independence’ in both elite and popular discourse and that while both terms are largely symbolic today the strength and durability of belief in them are extraordinary by modern European standards. Sovereignty remains a highly emotive concept in Britain with many meanings, including power, authority, influence, independence and individualism, along with a sense of national selfdetermination. Although by no means entirely restricted to the British within the EU, this has meant that domestic political discourse in Britain struggles to view the EU as anything other than an external entity to the sovereign British polity. Therefore, outside the relatively small proportion of true believers in the UK, Europe is admired and even grudgingly accepted by many, but it is not closely identified with, or much liked, even by such groups, and this has created the necessary political space for the Eurosceptic forces to exert leverage beyond the traditionally hostile elements of the population, of which there are many. And now, with the issue of euro entry and a formal written constitution up for referendum decisions, Britain’s formidable (but loose) coalition of Eurosceptic forces, views this as the final letting of the ‘Fully Federal Europe’ cat out of the bag and as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to kill the whole project, or at least Britain’s part in it, once and for all!* *Please note that this paper is part of an ongoing and wider joint research project on UK sovereignty in relation to British exceptionalism in relation to other EU states which I am currently conducting with my colleague Dr Philippa Sherrington, also of the University of Warwick.
‘No government in Europe remains sovereign in the sense understood by diplomats or constitutional lawyers of half a century ago. Within the fifteen member EU mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs has become a long accepted practice… [Nevertheless the] … legitimate units within these institutions remain states… To a remarkable degree the processes of government in Europe overlap and interlock: among different states, between different levels of governance below and above the old locus of sovereignty in the nation state.’1
Britain's relationship with the European Union has been one of the most divisive issues of domestic British politics over the last fifty years. And that pattern looks likely to continue into the foreseeable future given that since the early 1980s the European Union has been working with a quasi-federalized system of law and treaties like the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (TEU) have became quasiconstitutional in nature, and subject, therefore, to negotiated revision through intergovernmental conferences. The TEU committed member states to the Single Currency, managed by a Central European Bank, with strict oversight of common national economic policies. According to William Wallace, what emerged ‘remains less than a federation, but something more than an institutional governing regime’.2 For Wallace then, the EU is clearly not yet a federation: though it displays federal – more accurately confederal – characteristics.3 In a judgement on the Maastricht TEU, the German Constitutional Court defined it as neither a Bundestaat (federation) nor a Staatenbund (confederation), but rather as a Verstaatenbund (a ‘potential federation’).4 It is clear, however, that the EU constitutes at least a nascent political system and offers a framework for unified governance, with state-like attributes operating above the nation state level.5 And now we have witnessed the birth of an enlarged EU of 25 states seeking to ratify a formal written constitution which, for Britain’s formidable loose coalition of Eurosceptic forces, represents the final letting of the ‘Fully Federal Europe’ cat out of the bag! However defined, the EU today represent an astonishingly complex picture of supranational policy and law making, running in parallel to a series of largely autonomous and more populist domestic political arenas, based upon national parliaments, which still have little regular or formal contact with each other except through the institution of the EU. Much national macroeconomic management is subject to European level regulation, in which for those that have joined the ‘first wave’ of monetary union, national monetary sovereignty has been gradually ceded to the European Central Bank (ECB). In addition, internal EU boarders have largely disappeared. Much of this sharing of sovereignty has been incremental and has consequently occurred without the European political classes admitting to their respective domestic electorates the extent to which this involved the loss of national autonomy.6 To the general publics of member states Europe was sold by state and non-state elites as largely a technical and wealth-creating process of public administration, leaving political decision making and democratic representation focused on national governments.7 In Britain, as this paper will discuss, this luxury of being able to insulate the impact of European ‘high politics’ from domestic ‘low politics’ is no longer possible. This is arguably the most problematic (and interesting) dimension of this emerging ‘post-sovereign state’ into which the EU appears to be developing. The new European order which is appearing uncouples many of the old linkages which tie elites to masses within nation states, undermining the normal process of political accountability and legitimacy. Yet, in spite of gradually democratizing and strengthening the
powers of the European Parliament, the EU remains incapable of providing any substantial sense of collective identity or seemingly proper accountability at the supranational level. A leading paradox of the EU political system, therefore, is that while governance becomes multi-level, and multi-dimensional, the elements of democratic representation, party loyalty and core political identity remain deeply rooted in the traditional institutions of the nation state – especially in the UK. Thus, as Wallace points out, while the substance of nation state sovereignty has now greatly diminished within the EU, the symbols of nation statehood, especially the strong sense of national solidarity, and the legitimating forces of representation and accountability, remain largely rooted in the old nation state structures and shared cultural histories.8 This is particularly true for Britain where core sovereign power and authority have been removed to be vested in European institutions, at a time when (in England at least) UK-wide parliamentary sovereignty remains the only widely accepted legitimate source of sovereignty to important sections of the political class, socio-economic elites and citizens alike.9 Outside the relatively small proportion of true believers, Europe is admired and grudgingly accepted by many, but it is not closely identified with, or liked, in the UK and this gives the political space for the Eurosceptic forces to exert leverage. The Maastricht Treaty, with its built in momentum towards economic and monetary union, was once seen in Britain as the ‘high water mark’ of European integration, but today the stakes for Britain and its partners are even higher, with pressures building up for further moves towards common employment, budgetary, taxation and defence policies as the EU expands beyond 25 members. In Britain such developments have been shadowed (the appropriate term) by growing levels of populist Euroscepticism, ensuring that Europe remains near the top of the list of issues of contemporary British political angst, if not yet an election winner, as William Hague discovered to his cost in 2001. The 1999 Amsterdam Treaty further strengthened the powers of the Presidency, Commission and European Parliament vis à vis national parliaments, establishing a deadline for the abolition of border controls and opening the way for common European foreign and defence policies. Such developments enhanced the growing debate over the risk of Britain being pulled further towards a fully federal union, or ‘super-state’. The present system of EU multi-level governance involves a complex interchange between EU, national, and sub-national agencies. But the EU level competencies are set to grow still further after the December 2000 Nice summit. As a result the division of domestic public expenditure (social security, health care, transport and public housing) represents some of the last bastions of macroeconomic policy making left to British governments, with Brussels-based organisations setting the main agenda for UK domestic policy making and increasingly a major focus of attention for senior British civil servants and private lobbying organisations. As Hix points out: ‘over 80 per cent of rules governing the production, distribution and exchange of goods services and capital in the British markets are decided by the EU. In the area of macroeconomic policy, despite the fact that Britain is not a member of the single currency, decisions of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Council of Finance Ministers have a direct impact upon British monetary, fiscal and employment policies. In the area of foreign and defence policy, Britain is bound by its commitments under the EU’s Common Foreign and Defence Policy (CFSP).10 The implications of allowing these linkages to deepen are far-reaching for domestic British politics – threatening as they do the very nature of the British party system and the associated party elites. In recent years this realisation has divided the Conservatives deeply, as their preference for a globalist, deregulatory and supply-side based national economic policy and their associated commitment to British
nationalism as the guardian of that neo-liberal policy preference, has brought them increasingly into confrontation with the inbuilt ‘social market’ bias of the EU’s macro-economic system. In this scenario, both the sovereign market and its political guardian, British parliamentary sovereignty, (both so often under Conservative stewardship over the past 150 years) are rightly seen as threatened by further deepening of EU. 11 British Sovereignty and Europe It is the issue of national sovereignty, at once the most complex and most contentious aspect underlying this process, which brings us to the heart of the debate in Britain. In the Eurosceptic scenario prevalent in the UK, a fully-federalised Europe would employ an EU-wide elected Parliament based on a uniform system of proportional representation removing any chances of either of the traditional governing parties governing Britain alone. This would also ultimately become the location of central sovereignty governing through mere regional agencies at the old nation state level, although these regions could easily be separate for Scotland and Wales (itself representing the final ‘break-up of Britain’). For those who believe in British sovereignty as defined in traditional Westminster parliamentary terms, this would be a disaster of historic proportions; in the words of Gaitskell uttered half a century ago ending: ‘a thousand years of British history.’ The doctrine of internal British sovereignty is amongst the most clearly defined of any political system. In theory Parliament is ‘sovereign’ facing no substantial internal limitations and or subordinate to any higher power, able to overturn almost any law passed by previous sovereign parliaments without any special constitutional arrangements. This coexists alongside to a strong belief across the political spectrum that Parliamentary Sovereignty is a symbol of ‘liberty’ and ‘Britishness’.12 Yet this is an outdated notion, with the core executive (variously defined) and Prime Minister securing most of the de facto sovereignty by the end of the nineteenth century, and since then membership of Europe has further reduced traditional British sovereignty. British political exceptionalism has also been underlined by many foreigners including Voltaire, Toqueville, and Marx. The idea of ‘Britishness’ (often expressed in distinctly English terms) remains a powerful one, for the English at least13, evidenced by the finding that almost 70 per cent of citizens as recently as 1988 still took pride in the fact that Britain had once had an Empire.14 At the same time British ‘sovereignty’ is sometimes used interchangeably with British ‘independence’. And while both terms are largely symbolic today the strength and durability of belief in them are extraordinary by modern European standards. As John Peterson ably demonstrated, ‘sovereignty’ is an emotive concept in Britain with many meanings, including power, authority, influence, independence and individualism, along with a sense of national self-determination.15 Although by no means entirely restricted to the British, this has meant that domestic political discourse in Britain struggles to view the EU as anything other than an external entity to the a sovereign British polity. In this discourse the pooling of national sovereignty necessary to create and sustain the EU is often viewed as something of a zero sum game in Britain – with each gain of sovereign powers by the EU representing an absolute loss of sovereignty for Britain. As a consequence, the concept of ‘interdependence’, or ‘mutual dependence’, is a typically British concept. The legacy of Empire, the special relationship with the US and English speaking world, reinforced by the two world wars, has sustained British exceptionalism, fusing sovereignty and interdependence into one belief system, an aspect of British political culture also discussed by Peterson.16 Consequently, Britain has been in the
forefront of promoting interdependence, playing an active part in creating and sustaining organizations such as the Commonwealth, NATO, GATT and the UN. Within the EU this philosophy is represented by the term ‘intergovernmentalism,’ in contrast to the true ‘supranationalism’ of the Maastricht TEU, and successive British governments have subscribed to this strand of cooperative integration.17 In contrast, the other EU states are traditionally tied together by common geographical, cultural, economic, historical and even psychological links after two catastrophic world wars shared across their combined territories. But in the UK, as Peter Brown-Pappamikail succinctly characterised it 1998: Viewed from Europe, Britain’s political and civic culture appears permeated with the convictions of a damaging adversarial bipolar culture….Wayne David, an MEP since 1989 and leader of the British Labour MEPs in the European Parliament comments: “confrontation is a style of politics, a weapon of politics used to achieve objectives. British politics is black and white, them and us, totally wrong or totally right and that encourages a confrontational style that also fits the electoral system.” It may also be at the heart of Britain’s parliamentary-based understanding of ‘sovereignty’. Whilst most continentals accept sovereignty as being multi-layered, local, regional, national and European, the British often view it as something indivisible, either you have it or you don’t: ‘...[In]… mainland Europe…one can speak of a ‘national interest’ being forged from the shared views of a wide spectrum of political ideologies……If one looks at countries with a tradition of coalition government, one sees a broader view of national interest, with consequences also for their understanding of shared sovereignty’.18 Thus, in terms of the domestic debate on Europe, the real issues raised by the euro and ongoing processes of EU deepening and widening remain, for the broad mass of the ‘undecideds’ in the population, and powerful sections of key UK elites (especially owners of the mass media), an essentially political question: should Britain ‘sacrifice’ further economic sovereignty for potential wealth creation and, in so doing, lose perhaps decisive elements of constitutional sovereignty, and with it, arguably, the fundamental core of “Britishness”. And this is the political vacuum into which a plethora of antiEuropean groups, with agendas stretching from total withdrawal, to renegotiating a looser intergovernmentalist or (to coin a phrase) ‘E with less U’.
William Wallace ‘The Sharing of Sovereignty: the European paradox.’ Political Studies (1999) XLVII, pp. 503-521. W. Wallace: ‘Less than a federation, More than a regime: The European Community as a Political System, in H. Wallace et al, Policy Making in the European Community. London, 1994, pp. 510-511 3 Ibid. 4 H. Ress, ‘The Constitution and the Maastricht Treaty’, German Politics, 1994. 5 H. Wallace ‘Government without Statehood: the Unstable Equilibrium’, in H. Wallace et al, Policy-Making in the European Union, Oxford, 1996. 6 W. Wallace, op cit. 7 See: K. Featherstone: ‘Jean Monnet and the “Democratic Deficit” in the European Union.’ Journal of Common Market Studies, 32 (1994) 149-70.W. Wallace and J. Smith: ‘Democracy or technocracy? European integration and the problem of popular consent.’ West European Politics, 18, (1995) 137-57 8 W Wallace, op cit. 9 H. Wallace and J. Smith: ‘Democracy or technocracy? European integration and the problem of popular consent.’ West European Politics, 18, (1995) 137-57. 10 S. Hix, ‘Britain, the EU and the Euro’, in Dunleavy et al, 1999, p 48. 11 D. Baker, A. Gamble and D. Seawright: ‘The European Exceptionalism of the British Political Elite’. British Journal of Politics and International Studies, Vol 4, No 3, 2002. 12 R. Eatwell (ed) European Political Cultures: Conflict or Convergence, 1997, p. 52 For the best recent study of the link between Britishness (in particular Englishness) and sovereignty: I. Buruma: Voltaire’s Coconuts, or Anglomania in Europe, London, 1999. 13 I. Buruma, 1999, op cit. Passim.
Gallup, The Economist, 28 March 1998. John Peterson: ‘Sovereignty and Interdependence’, in I. Holliday et al: Fundamentals in British Politics, Macmillan, 1999.. 16 Ibid. . 17 See: W. Wallace ‘What Price Interdependence? Sovereignty and Interdependence in British Politics, International Affairs, 62(3) 1996, pp. 367-69. 18 P. Brown-Pappamikail: ‘Britain Viewed from Europe’, in D. Baker and D. Seawright (eds): Britain For and Against Europe: British Politics and the Question of European Integration, Oxford, 1998.