On 20 October 2014 the outgoing President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, delivered a major speech on the future of the European Union (EU) and the implications for the UK’s place in it. He reflected on three lessons identified from his ten-year stint in office and used these to make the case for a continued British presence inside the organization. This think piece outlines the logic of Barroso’s position and the challenges it will pose for any British renegotiation of its terms of membership of the EU.
First of all, and in case anyone was in any doubt, Barroso observed that the Eurozone and global economic crisis had demonstrated the inextricable interconnectedness of modern economies: ‘unity is essential if we are to face the challenges of today’. Overall, he argued, the EU’s strategy of promoting structural reform and fiscal responsibility successfully prevented a break-up of the Eurozone or the exit of individual countries such as Greece.
Second, Barroso pointed out that by resisting the temptation to ‘think national’ by developing a collective response to the crisis ‘Europe was able to speak with authority globally’. He allied the growing economic relevance of the EU, particularly in South and Central America and Asia, to an enhanced political impact on the world stage. The EU’s political influence was constructed around the theme of value-promotion – those of ‘peace, security, fairness and the fight against poverty’.
Third, he linked the recent enlargements of the EU to a now 28-member bloc, home to half-a-billion people, to the organization’s ‘inherent power of attraction’. This has been achieved he intoned, using a phrase which should please British Eurosceptics, using integrative practices in which all member states could remain ‘united in our diversity’. He even paid homage to the way in which the EU had adopted core aspects of the British approach to economic revivification to inform the EU’s own thinking on how to get its economy ‘back in shape’.
In the next part of the speech Barroso addressed the import of the EU’s recent and projected reforms for the UK’s ‘existentialist European debate’. He rejected the view that any European nation operating alone could exert anything other than ‘marginal relevance’ in the international community. He trashed the discursively resonant view in the UK that integration implies ‘a relentless march to one single super-state’. He underlined the idea that all EU countries are proud of their national identities and histories.
Barroso also affirmed his belief that ‘our future is as an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’. This was a direct challenge to David Cameron, who in his Bloomberg speech of January 2013 reported that ‘for Britain – and perhaps for others – it is not the objective’. Barroso evidenced his case for unity in diversity by noting Britain’s continued absence from the Eurozone and all the British opt-outs from core EU activity negotiated in recent years, for example on Schengen and police and criminal law measures.
Finally in the speech, Barroso tried to assuage the concerns about areas of EU activity that have attracted most day-to-day attention in the UK media and political debates in recent years: the size of the EU’s budget and spending priorities (‘I get that’); the EU’s institutional inefficiency and overspend (‘I get that’); too much business red tape (‘I get that’); migration and ‘the abuse of free movement rights’ (‘I get that’).
The main concern Barroso expressed with the framing of the UK’s debates about its EU membership (the one thing he doesn’t ‘get’) is the assumption that ‘there is a permanent tension between the UK interest and the European interest’. It is this essential identity question which has, as Barroso correctly suggested, gone uncontested by politicians in the UK across the board for decades. It is a fundamental part of the UK’s sense of itself dating back to Victorian times: an ‘island’ people who go to Europe for their holidays and leave Europe when they hop on Eurostar back to London. Even notionally Europhile politicians such as Tony Blair used this Dickensian notion of Britishness to inform his European policy thinking.
Barroso may have been right to suggest, therefore, that there is plenty of scope for a re-negotiation of the UK terms of its EU membership which means the British can remain inside the EU (his preference). He is also right to predict that the re-negotiation will be ‘difficult and very risky’, creating economic uncertainty around investment and UK import-export trade with the single market.
However, he also spoke of the ‘illusions’ of the UK debate about its role in Europe and the wider world which need dispelling in the coming years. Illusions they may be, but national identities are all founded on mythical ‘origins’ and historical imaginaries that are no less real for being partially or totally fabricated amongst a national community. Many in Britain have no problem feeling connected to peoples in the USA and Australia despite being a good deal further separated from them than they are from Europe by 20 miles of English Channel. These illusions have real day-to-day import and have acted for decades now as a strong constraining dissensus on the enactment of a proactive European policy on the part of successive British governments.
Moreover, the British have always built their European policies on a Janus-faced discourse of their place ‘in’ Europe. More often than not the British construct themselves as ‘outsiders’ even when they are proclaiming the benefits of EU membership. Eurosceptics and Europhiles in the UK have more in common than they sometimes realise. It will take more than a short period renegotiating the UK terms of entry to alter decades, even centuries-worth of relatively settled popular national consensus on who the British are with respect to ‘Europe’.
In sum, the nature of the terms on which the British debate ‘Europe’ will pose a huge challenge for any UK leader wishing to conduct a re-negotiation and then hold a referendum on membership where the preferred answer is ‘Yes’. The re-negotiation could achieve everything and more that Cameron or his successor wishes yet the referendum outcome might still be ‘No’. In identity terms, at least withdrawal would be in line with Britain’s sense of itself as a European ‘outsider’. It’s just the economy that might suffer.
Dr Oliver Daddow (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Reader in International Politics at University of Leicester. He is guest editor, with Mark Bevir and Pauline Schnapper, of the forthcoming Journal of Common Market Studies special issue on Britain and Europe.