Feature: Why does Britain have such a difficult relationship with Europe?

In and out: Will Britain ever get over its differences with Europe?
In and out: Will Britain ever get over its differences with Europe?

David Cameron's veto of the eurozone rescue initiative is just the latest fraught episode in Britain's relationship with Europe. But why is the UK so suspicious of the continent?

By Ian Dunt

European visitors to the UK are often surprised by how much British people like their countries. British popular culture still perceives the French as sophisticated, the Germans as competent and the Italians as sexy. Scandinavian countries are held up as models by the left and right in British politics, while holidaymakers sing the praises of Spain and Croatia. The combination of a small country, healthy spending power and poor weather back home power make Brits committed travellers. Most return to the UK with nothing but praise about the places they have visited.

But continental readers taking a glance at the British newspapers must conclude something different. In the wake of David Cameron's veto of a euro rescue initiative, the tabloid press has broken out with the predictable Second World War puns equivalent to their worst excesses during international football tournaments. It does not seem as if Britain has much love for Europe.

In truth, there are two Europes in Britain's head. One constitutes the mental imagery of holidays and exotic locations, complete with balmy heat and beautiful food. The other is of European politics, which represents some overwhelming technocratic monstrosity, reducing all human interaction to regulated exchanges and riding roughshod over the wishes of the public.

To understand Britain's feelings towards the European project one must understand that British euroscepticism is as much an emotional position as it is an intellectual position. The reason Europe has broken so many Conservative governments is because Conservative MPs will happily place it above their professional, party or even national self-interest. It is a matter of the soul and it goes to the heart of many people's ideology, especially on the right –but also on the further reaches of the left.

The reasons behind this passion lie in deep, fundamental aspects of the British personality, including geography, history, the Second World War and political culture.

The fact that Britain is an island plays a pivotal role in the way it considers the European mainland. While Britain does not usually employ the American word 'exceptionalism' to describe its sense of its place in the world, the term accurately outlines the British approach to international relations. For their part, Europeans readily jump at this explanation, with Nicolas Sarkozy only recently telling a British journalist his island status meant he could not understand the "subtlety" of European organisation.

It is a lazy answer, but it has some truth in it. Every country's history and society is heavily influenced by its geography. While many Europhile Brits look east to the continent and others look west to the United States, most Brits consider the UK its own beast, connected to the English speaking world by ancestry and Europe by geography but belonging to neither. A regrettable side-effect of this is Britain's broad disinterest in the rest of the world's politics. America and France get a mention in the news, but that's about it. The only real exception is Sweden, whose role as an exemplar for the British left means it is regularly brought up by both sides of the political divide.

This sense of detachment was cemented by the Second World War. Britain is a very old country, but its origin myth is set recently, during that vital year in which it stood alone against the Nazi empire. France had fallen and Russia and the US were not yet involved. It is an interesting historical irony that a country so used to invading other countries should consider its proudest moment to have occurred not when it won, but merely when it resisted defeat. This origin story has such a fundamental place in the British psyche that it cements the impression of a Britain removed from the continent, master of its own destiny, capable of overcoming any challenge on the basis of its own wit and no-nonsense, roll-up-your-sleeves national spirit.

This origin myth takes place among the broader historical picture of Britain, which is a uniquely self-determined one. The signing of the Maastricht treaty was the first substantial loss of sovereign power from this island for nearly one thousand years. That level of self-determination gives an almost spiritual vitality to discussions of sovereignty.

While British people have a very complex relationship to their history, and in particular the empire, it is nevertheless a history of impressive achievement. The industrial revolution saw the country effectively create the modern world, while its artistic and scientific influence has far outweighed what a country of such a size could reasonably expect. This is particularly so for the British parliament, which is often referred to as the 'mother of parliaments' due to its role as a model for most other parliamentary systems and the fact its Acts have created several other parliaments. One should not underestimate the weight – whether real or imagined - this history places upon those who strive to keep its powers in Westminster rather than Brussels.

While many other countries adopted the Westminster model of democracy, very few carried the culture which permeates it. Other countries look on - either aghast or bemused - at the mockery, heckling and outright bullying that accompany British parliamentary democracy. Even the structure of the debating chamber, with two sets of seats facing each other as if primed for combat, contrasts sharply with the more consensual semi-circle used in most other countries. British political culture has always been about personalities, from William Pitt the Younger through to Benjamin Disraeli and Boris Johnson. The advent of television and the disinterest of the public toward complex policy discussions have aided this process but it was always a strong current in the country's political history. The British wariness of a seemingly technocratic Brussels, with its faceless ministers and sleep-inducing policy directives, stems from its vastly more dramatic and colourful political culture.

The political differences between Europe and the UK are not simply about process, however. They also incorporate political philosophy and culture. While eurosceptics are liable to phrase their denunciations of the European project around maxims such as 'no taxation without representation', the real driving force behind the different British and European approaches to political thought stems from a conception of the state. Mainland Europe has a far less critical view of the state than Britain. Even very recent French laws, such as the ban on the Muslim veil, would be considered unthinkable in the UK, primarily because of the power such legislation hands the state over the individual. In fact immigration minister Damian Green's specific response to the idea of a ban on the hijab was that it would be 'un-British'.

The idea of Britain acting as a bridge between Europe and America is overused and often inaccurate but it is useful and true in one important respect: Where Europe is critical of the private sector and the US is critical of the state, British political culture is generally critical of both. Your particular focus defines you on the political spectrum.

The irony is that for all Britain's distance from the continent, it is still a part of the western model which originated in Europe. Its modern political history starts, as Europe's does, with the Enlightenment and the creation of the working class. Its political culture is a product of the same principles and ideas that have shaped Europe. It is destined always to be part of Europe, but never to fit in.

Cameron's veto is just the latest chapter of a rocky relationship, like a bickering couple who can never quite bring themselves to split up.


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