In or Out – the UK’s European hokey-cokey

For the last 50 years the UK has had a tortuously ambivalent political relationship with the rest of Europe – the referendum will not resolve this. This is for reasons of both geography and history. As an island with nothing but sea to the west but a huge landmass to the east, the UK is both naturally separated, and hence different, from the rest of Europe and at the same time ineluctably tied to and influenced by what happens there. The UK is both a part of Europe and not a part of Europe. This is reinforced by the sharing of a common language with the largest economy in the world, so providing the US with its key gateway to the European continent. Half of the UK’s trade is with Europe, emphasising the importance of the relationship, and of course the other half is not.

Post-war history has highlighted the indecision of the UK with regard to its relationship with Europe. In the early days of inter-government discussions between the nations to discuss political and economic co-operation and integration in the 1950s, the UK was largely absent and played no part, believing such plans were of little interest or relevance to them. By the early 1960s this indifference had turned to concern as it became clear that important economic decisions were being made in Europe that were affecting the UK’s interests. Macmillan changed course and decided the UK needed to join the European project, but was dismayed to find that the UK’s entry was vetoed by de Gaulle’s. So the 60s was a decade of the UK banging on the door of Europe but not being allowed in.

Ted Heath’s premiership in the early 70s was built around heavy diplomatic efforts aimed at negotiating the UK’s entry into the Common Market. This was finally achieved in 1973 at which point domestic politics intervened and Labour came to power with an election mandate to renegotiate the terms of entry which had only just been agreed, and then to hold a referendum. The renegotiation delivered very little and the public voted 2 to 1 to stay in.

For most of her premiership in the 80s, Margaret Thatcher was a convinced pro-European, because she saw it as good for business, and it was she who pushed hard in negotiations with the rest of Europe to deliver the European single market – the UK at this time was consistently arguing for more European integration, with opposition from much of the rest of Europe!

This reversed dramatically in the 90s as Jacques Delors led the European drive towards monetary union and the creation of the euro. In the UK this was seen as a backdoor way of seeking greater political union and sparked the rise of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, which has been the key faultline within the party ever since. Major European initiatives since then such as the Schengen free travel area and the single currency have seen the UK opt out, while letting others move forward together in greater integration.

The Blair and Brown governments in the Noughties were keen to be seen as leading Europe, with both men seeking to extend British influence by positive engagement, but increasingly the UK media railed against Brussels bureaucracy and increasing European regulation.

David Cameron was forced, for reasons of maintaining short-term party unity, to cede a second referendum, and polls, with less than a week until the vote, show a nation badly split over whether to remain in or leave the EU.

Though the shorter term consequences of the vote will be significant, on a longer term view, the UK’s essential ambivalence in its attitude to Europe will persist.

A victory for Remain will be seen as a rather grudging acceptance that the economic benefits of staying in (which have been very real for the UK economy over the last 40 years) are worth the perceived loss of sovereignty and democratic accountability, but there are few in the UK who have made an emotionally charged positive case for Europe. The UK would continue to be in but the tone will be reluctantly in – the historic ambivalence will continue.

A victory for Leave, though at first sight a clear statement that the UK does not wish to be tied to Europe, will not bring to an end the need for close understanding of European rules. The most successful UK , in services, in order to trade successfully with Europe, will be forced to comply with whatever regulations the rest of Europe decides to impose, not just with regard to those specific industries but also more generally with regard to European laws, which the UK will have no part in deciding.

The UK’s destiny with Europe is thus set to remain halfway “In” and halfway “Out” – the UK’s European hokey-cokey. The referendum will be a significant event in the UK-European relationship but will not change that fate.