In a big FT magazine feature today George Parker reviews the state of British euroscepticism, concluding that it is a "powerful political force that Cameron will do well to contain":
"David Cameron’s Conservative party is no longer split over Europe. The old pro-European wing has been routed: a Cameron government promises to be the most eurosceptic ever elected in Britain. The only debate is whether the battle with Brussels should take the form of guerrilla raids or a full-scale assault...
Eurosceptics like to point to polls showing headline hostility towards the EU, but deeper analysis shows that the public regard Europe as a marginal issue in their daily lives... Cameron’s problem is that he leads a party that is very interested in the issue. Ken Clarke says that the Tory grass-root members who choose parliamentary candidates will reject anyone who does not claim euroscepticism."
After the media made so much hay over bitter divisions in the parliamentary party caused by the EU, that it can now move forward as one on the issue is a good thing. The election of longtime eurosceptic David Cameron as Prime Minister would bring about a much-needed shot in the arm for democracy and accountability in Britain and the European Union.
Putting eurosceptic words into action will be a challenge but as a cause it is completely at one with the political agenda of devolving responsibility in a post-bureaucratic age, and whilst it doesn't rank above the cost of living in voters' concerns they certainly back it in principle with only 30% of them believing EU membership to be a good thing. Parker does score something of a hit on euroscepetic newspapers like the Sun, Times and Telegraph:
"if they really believed – as they sometimes claim – that Britain is being run from Brussels, it seems curious that none maintains a staff reporter in the EU capital."
The problem is - and this is a big challenge for EUscepticism, unlike the red herring that Parker throws in about the British increasingly liking Europe itself due to cheap flights - that whilst the barely scrutinised flow of legislation and regulation from Brussels is a hugely important issue... it's a very boring one for most people. Struggling newspapers don't even have reporters covering what goes on in the British parliament and British courts anymore, let alone hiring some to report on debates in Brussels and Strasbourg.
See below for Parker's main points on the causes of and challenges for euroscepticism...
On the causes of euroscepticism:
- "Although Britons have traditionally been cautious about engagement with Europe – a continent they associate with wars (as Margaret Thatcher pointed out) – outright hostility to the EU is a relatively recent phenomenon..."
- "[Thatcher] supported the scrapping of national vetos to ensure that single-market legislation could be passed... Her single-market push was a great success – the UK does about 60 per cent of its trade with the EU – but the cost was a huge erosion of public sympathy for the European project."
- "Delors, a socialist, decided that Thatcher’s liberal view of a free-trade Europe needed to be balanced by “a social Europe” with similar working arrangements and union rights across the bloc, including a maximum 48-hour week. Since this was related to the functioning of the single market, Delors successfully argued that national vetos should not apply."
- "One point of (belated) agreement in Brussels is that the sceptics have been sustained by the EU’s endless obsession with updating its institutions – a process of treaty revision that has been in train almost without pause since the mid-1980s. Little wonder Europe’s citizens feel this is an organisation hard-wired for mission creep."
And its challenges:
- "Today’s European Commission, the EU executive, is adopting many of Margaret Thatcher’s old causes. Jacques Chirac, French president, witheringly described the Commission as being “neo-liberal” because of its passion for forcing open Europe’s energy market, promoting a world trade deal and expanding the EU’s borders to the east, including Turkey. The “threat level” from Brussels post-Delors is also diminished."
- "Even if Britons dislike the faceless bureaucracy of the EU, they do not necessarily dislike Europe. The network of routes opened up by the budget airlines to obscure European airports confirms a British appetite for travel to the continent. In 2006, 207,000 Britons left the country – mostly to other EU countries – and only 81,000 came back."
- "Cameron may also have noticed that young and better educated people tend to be more open to the advantages of EU membership. A recent Eurobarometer poll found that 43 per cent of the youngest segment of the survey saw the EU as being a good thing compared with just 25 per cent of those aged 55 or more. The variation when the data is reviewed by education level is even more marked."