A few weeks ago Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament, stated, "I want Britain in because without Britain we are weaker but ... we cannot hold someone who wants to go." This is a sentiment shared by many in Europe, who would prefer that the UK remain in the EU but are becoming increasingly frustrated by our perceived obstructive and stubborn attitude. The UK is, according to this view, a thorn in the side of the rest of the member states, holding up progress towards an ever closer union and therefore responsible for the continuation of the economic and political crisis engulfing the continent.
It's important to understand what it is we mean when we discuss 'the UK' in the context of European politics. In Brussels, countries become personified as their national stereotypes and abbreviated to their two letter symbols. DE and FR might agree with UK on some issues but line up with SL and PT on others. When people talk about the UK or any other member state, it's easy to generalise and write entire populations off as foaming-at-the-mouth, narrow-minded nationalists (i.e. the UK) or workshy, welfare dependents (most of southern Europe). This is evidently not the case, but the implications for how countries are perceived are profound.
To the rest of Europe, the UK is represented by David Cameron and Nigel Farage, both of whose roles require some deconstruction. Cameron is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Conservatives are dealing with the rising popularity of UKIP and a Labour party in the process of reassessing its formerly pro-European credentials. A referendum is therefore on the cards. Despite this, Cameron knows full well just how dangerous this could be if it were called now and understands the damage it would do to the UK's already undermined image. It is not because the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems that a referendum has not been called. It is because Cameron understands that we cannot possibly make a rational decision about EU membership when the rest of Europe is in such a state of flux. Furthermore we have absolutely no idea what we would be leaving the EU for. So he must therefore play a balancing act: fight for UK interests in Brussels but delay what seems to be the inevitable, a referendum on EU membership.
Another individual who many in Europe now view as the personification of the UK is Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP and a well-known member of the European Parliament. Farage's attitude towards the EU is an odd one. He preaches withdrawal from the EU as though he is some sort of religious zealot. He rages on a day to day basis about the horrors of the nascent United States of Europe. And yet at the same time he seems to have failed to understand the implications of his behaviour for the UK's interests. His rudeness will not be forgotten by the rest of Europe, particularly given that his wrongly seen as representing the UK's mainstream. His commitment to burning every bridge he can find may ultimately do significant damage to the UK's interests if and when discussions begin about a reshaped relationship with the EU. The world, least of all politics, is not black and white. UKIP's stance on Europe would indicate that they think it is.
My point is that the UK's image in Europe is not representative of what is actually going on domestically. Cameron is in the unenviable position of trying to manage his increasingly vociferous backbenchers and increasingly those in the Opposition, while attempting not to permanently alienate his European counterparts. Farage may have a large Twitter following and some good catchlines, but when it comes down to it, I doubt that the British people would say they agreed with him or his approach to diplomacy. On top of this, we have an incredibly eurosceptic media, either actively misleading the public about Europe or simply not discussing it for fear of attracting criticism.
Following on from this, is the widely-held image of the UK being a roadblock to political unity justified? Do we really warrant the criticism it receives from the rest of Europe? Is it fair to label us petulant children who want everything and nothing at the same time?
Away from the high politics of the seemingly endless Council summits, where European prime ministers, chancellors and presidents do battle, the day to day drudgery of the European political process continues. It is by its nature one in which decisions are taken collectively and after extensive debate and compromise. Is the UK a productive contributor to the European political process or do we sit to one side and cause problems? My experience would be the former: the UK leads the way in designing financial services regulation, encouraging the development of free trade agreements and strengthening the Single Market. The UK has long been regarded by Scandinavian and eastern European member states as an ally, fighting for smart regulation and against protectionism. While the rhetoric at the top might have changed, things remain relatively consistent lower down the hierarchies.
Linked to this is the fact that there are many member states that are only too happy to let the UK take the flack for policy stances they actually support. Although it is the UK getting all the criticism for its threat to use its veto on the EU's budget in the coming days, let us also not forget that there are several other countries, including France, who are doing the same thing. Indeed this time last year, Germany and many others were supportive of the UK position. On issue after issue, it is the UK who stands up and says no, reinforcing the image of us being obstructive, but failing to take note of the widespread opposition that many member states also feel to elements of the European project.
In reality, this may mean very little in terms of how the UK and its representatives are perceived in Brussels. But we must be careful not to allow the stereotype of a hard-line, anti-Europe UK to become embedded to the extent it becomes true. A referendum may well happen and the UK may well withdraw, but until that point, we must remain active participants in the European process and recognise the heavily biased messages we receive from UK politicians and media.
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