Posted on 28 June 2013
With the announcement of a referendum by Prime Minister Cameron, Britain’s continued membership of the European Union is far from certain, explained Graham Avery. “Its departure from the EU would be painful and humiliating for all parties” he said “but even more so for Britain”. Graham Avery, of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, is a former Visiting Fellow at EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre, and Honorary Director General of the European Commission. He argued that although opinion polls now suggest that a majority of the British people would vote against EU membership, a well-informed public debate could lead to a ‘yes’ in a referendum, as it did in 1975.
Avery was speaking at the seminar “Britain and the EU” hosted by the Robert Schuman Centre, in which he attempted to provide some explanation for Britain’s complex relationship with the European Union.
According to Avery the roots of the relationship can be traced back to different collective experiences of the wars of the last century. “The British people don’t understand the deep motives for integration that some of the other members have. Britain was never invaded or occupied, and the majority of the fighting took place on the continent.”
A predominantly anti-European media feeds into a superiority complex among Westminster politicians, the result a long tradition of representative democracy says Avery, to creates a sense of cynicism about the EU. “Both press and politicians demonise EU, what comes from Brussels is not only to be suspected, but is against us.”
In a speech last January, Prime Minister David Cameron said he would seek a renegotiation on the terms of Britain’s EU membership, and wider reforms of Europe’s institutions. If re-elected with a majority in the general election of 2015 he would put a referendum to the British public on membership before 2017.
In principle Cameron remains in favour of remaining in the EU, subject to the outcome of negotiations. However he is vague about what terms he might find acceptable, and his re-election is by no means certain. The Conservative Party currently trail the Labour Party in the polls, who at present only favour a referendum in the case of treaty change. It is also unclear the extent to which other member states would be willing to negotiate with Britain.
The question of Britain’s relationship with the EU has become an increasingly prevalent over the last few years, crisis in the Eurozone and increased support for the UK Independence Party, has opened up old divisions within the Conservative Party.
The promise of a referendum has more to do with internal party politics than a groundswell of public opinion against the EU, which polls show remains low on the list of priorities for the majority of voters. Many Conservative MPs resent having to form a coalition government after the last election returned a hung parliament, forcing them into a coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.
The debate is further complicated by the upcoming referendum on Scottish Independence after the pro-EU Scottish National Party won a majority in the devolved Scottish Parliament.
“This debate reminds me how important timing is in politics,” added Stefano Bartolini, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre. “A minor deviation in the first step might lead you in a completely different way at the end of the path.”
“There is a very real risk that Britain may leave the European Union which I think would be a tragedy.” concluded Avery.
(Text by Mark Briggs)