Update 34 – January 2012
The forward march of Europe halted?
A major theme of both the first and second editions of Politics and Governance in the UK was what I called the ‘Europeanization’ of British politics: this meant the increasing integration of the British economy and polity into the European Union, and the increasing salience of European issues in the domestic political arena. In recent months the salience of Europe has greatly increased, but the expectation of continuing Europeanization – of the inexorable march of Europeanization in the UK – is now in some doubt.
The reasons for this are very well-known. The most recent centrepiece of European Union, the creation of a ‘Eurozone’ uniting seventeen of the twenty seven members of Union with a common currency, is in serious trouble. Whether it survives as a currency, or whether the Eurozone survives in its present form, depends on a range of presently unknowable factors: how the crises of banking solvency and public debt are managed in the member states of the zone; and how successful are the attempts to reconfigure the institutions of the Eurozone to give more central control over tax and spending policies in the individual member states of the zone. From the point of UK politics, however, the most immediate impact of the crisis has been to halt, and possibly put into reverse, an epoch of Europeanization which has lasted now almost a generation, since the UK’s entry into the former European Economic Community (the Common Market) in the 1970s. The most immediate political effect of the crisis has been to strength the voice of Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom. Opinion poll evidence has for many years shown the British to be among the least enthusiastic members of the European Union – and the UK by far the least enthusiastic large member state of the Union. When Prime Minister Cameron in December 2011 used the British veto to reject (against the views of the other 26 member states of the Union) a revision of the Union Treaty, the immediate reason he gave was that he had failed to get safeguards for the City of London against increased EU regulation. That undoubtedly was an important consideration, but it was also the case that, had the Prime Minister agreed to a treaty revision, even with safeguards for the City, he would have faced huge difficulties in managing his own Party in Parliament. The Conservative parliamentary party returned in the 2010 is overwhelmingly sceptical about the European Union. It views the crisis of the Eurozone as both a vindication of the original hostility to adopting the Euro, and as an opportunity to reshape the terms of British participation in the wider EU. In stressing the importance of national interests in the Union it is not alone. The intense stresses of the crisis have reinforced the extent to which the EU is – to use the jargon of integration theorists – shaped by ‘intergovernmentalism’ rather than by ‘supranationalism.’ That is, it is shaped by the calculations and strategies of the national governments rather than by EU institutions. The crisis has significantly reduced the importance of the Commission in economic government, and has significantly increased the importance of national political actors – notably, in the Eurozone itself, the importance of the French President and the German Chancellor in trying to negotiate some solution to the crisis.
This update was written shortly before Christmas 2011, and it is impossible to predict how the crisis will work out. Although the UK is not a member of the Eurozone, its economic fate is closely tied up with its future: both because the countries of the zone are major British markets, and because British banks are heavily committed in the most troubled national markets. But even if the Euro survives, and some new central institutions are developed in the zone to more effectively manage economic policy, the relationship between the EU and UK has been fundamentally changed. The daily business of British engagement with EU institutions will continue. But the era of steadily increasing involvement – of growing Europeanization – is probably at an end. Any British participation in a common currency has been indefinitely postponed. Indeed, the most likely future is some unwinding of the Europeanization which has been experienced in recent decades. Were the more catastrophic forecasts to occur – such as the dismantling of the Eurozone, or even its shrinkage to a small number of members – then we would have to reconsider wholesale our understanding of the nature of the British participation in the movement for European integration. The UK is unlikely to ‘withdraw’ from the Union. But withdrawal is not necessary to halt Europeanization; the whole character of Union, and thus the meaning of the UK’s engagement with it, will be very different in the future, even if the crisis of the Euro is resolved.