NS Essay 2 - 'For Britain, joining Europe was associated with national decline and loss of great power status'

In all EU countries, the masses are sceptical about the union. Only in Britain is scepticism shared

Scepticism is not in itself a bad thing. Being sceptical about fundamental change or seemingly incomprehensible institutions can be healthy and it can help to immunise people against populist extremism. But Britain's relationship with the European Union and its predecessor institutions over the past 50 years appears to many no longer to be in the category of healthy scepticism. Some continental Europeans would argue that it is close to an obsession.

It would be wrong, however, to equate Euroscepticism with anti-Europeanism. It is perfectly possible to feel European in a geographical and cultural sense, but to oppose the European Union on political and economic grounds. And clearly, most Britons are afraid of the European Union as an institution rather than of Europe as a continent. Again, it would be wrong to see a stark choice between outright support and complete opposition. Many people support European integration in principle, but oppose the specific direction in which it is developing. In other words, they want European integration, but they resent the European Union currently on offer.

In these senses, Britons are not much different from their fellow Europeans. To suggest, for example, that Britons are Eurosceptic because they are more nationalistic than, say, the Germans is mistaken. German opposition to Anglo-Saxon-style hostile corporate takeovers or the German position on ethnically based immigration laws demonstrate that there is indeed such a thing as German nationalism. But the crucial difference is that German nationalism seems to be compatible with the specific nature of European integration. So why do Britons - more than others - find it so difficult to combine domestic and European rules and norms, and why do they consequently aspire to a different kind of European Union? Why, in short, are they not so much Eurosceptics as sceptics about the present direction of the EU?

I suggest five reasons. First, there are questions of identity, of differing countries' perceptions of their role in the world. On this point, the reasons why some countries support the existing pattern of European integration can be as illuminating as the reasons why Britain stays on the sidelines. For the people in most member states, for example, European integration has a positive connotation since it refers to the guarantee of peace (eg, France and Germany), the rescue of nation states after war (eg, Holland, Belgium and Italy), or the enhancement of democracy and development (eg, Spain, Portugal and Greece). For Britain, in contrast, joining European institutions was associated with national decline and the loss of "great power" status.

Moreover, belonging to European institutions is regarded by most Europeans as reaching out to the world, either because their countries are too small (eg, Luxembourg) or were too nationalistic in the past (eg, Germany). But for Britons, who came from pursuing a global agenda as a colonial power, the European experience was necessarily one of narrowing options and adopting a more inward-looking stance. Likewise, a number of European countries see the EU as a counterweight to America. It thus carries a positive connotation because these countries think it gives them extra room for manoeuvre in international affairs. For Britain, however, this notion threatens its "special relationship" with America and so it seems to reduce its foreign policy options.

In general, therefore, depending on where countries were standing before the integration process started, Europeanisation can carry positive or negative identity connotations. This may help to explain an important aspect of British Euroscepticism. Almost any public opinion survey demonstrates fairly widespread disillusionment with the European Union in all European countries - certainly much higher than the "normal" towards politics within states. Particularly in recent years, for example, referendums about EU treaties have almost always stirred up Eurosceptic movements. What is striking about Britain is that this kind of popular Eurosceptic disgruntlement appears to be shared by significant sections of its decision-making elites.

This is probably the effect of Britain's binary and confrontational political system, in contrast to countries such as Germany which have a strong consensual political culture, sometimes leading to "grand coalitions". A Eurobarometer survey in 1996, analysing attitudes towards the European Union, seems to support this hypothesis. The survey found that attitudes among the masses in Britain and Germany were at an almost identically low level. The crucial difference was that Germany's political and economic elites were significantly more pro-European than their British counterparts.

That brings us to a second reason for British scepticism towards the EU in its present form: the very straightforward one of what different countries get out of it. Put simply, people are more likely to be enthusiastic about the European Union if they can see visible benefits from membership. For some countries, such as Ireland, membership has clear and tangible advantages in the form of regional aid funds. For others, such as Germany, tangible disadvantages such as net outward payments are balanced by intangible advantages such as gaining postwar sovereignty and security. As often, however, any supposedly rational cost-benefit analysis depends on perception. It is not only that Britons object to being the second-biggest net contributors to the EU budget; the problem is also that they think they are paying without a reason, that they cannot identify sufficient intangible gains from membership to balance what it costs them.

Third, there is the question of what European integration should achieve. European integration started as a deliberate strategic security project in order to solve the "German question" and, later on, to establish an anti-communist bloc. Quite soon, however, a second agenda emerged with the success of the continental European welfare state model, mostly defined around redistributive social justice and a strong regulatory regime. And as globalisation grew in the final years of the 20th century - a process that, to many eyes, seemed to threaten the welfare state - the protection of this European model has become, for the vast majority of EU member states, arguably the most important priority.

Britain, however, accepts only some aspects of the continental European welfare model. To embrace it in full, Britain would have to undergo fundamental domestic change and abandon both Thatcherism and Blairism. A "third way", somewhere between the Anglo-Saxon and Continental models, is not a real alternative, because most continental Europeans are not in the mood to move further towards an Anglo-Saxon model.

The fourth question concerns the form of European integration - federalism, in other words. At a basic level, countries that already have federal systems naturally tend to favour federalism at the European level. Nothing tells you more about this problem than the different meanings that the Germans and the English attach to the word "federalism": in Germany, it stands for decentralisation, while, for the English, it is associated with centralisation. At a deeper level, even if Britons and Germans finally realise that they both aim for subsidiarity, the real divide is over the exact type of federalism. So far, the European Union has followed the path of German-style co-operative federalism, which is characterised by overlapping joint-decision networks and a strong regulatory regime at the central level. Most Britons, if they wanted a federal Europe at all, would prefer a US-style competitive federalism, with clear separation of powers and exclusive policy domains for each federal level. The differences are significant: co-operative federalism, for example, would eventually lead to tax harmonisation, whereas competitive federalism would probably leave sharply differing tax regimes. Again, there is no viable "third way", and the European welfare state model inherently favours co-operative federalism.

Finally, what are the past experiences of European integration? For many years, Britain's awkward role in Europe was attributed to the "latecomer effect". And when somebody joins a club with established rules that cannot easily be changed, problems are highly likely. This is particularly true if there is an acrimonious debate about the pros and cons of membership. Yet Spain, Portugal and Greece are examples of countries that joined the EU without trouble. What explains the different British experience? The answer must lie in the issue of trust. For example, Britain's attempts to sabotage the early European unification process after 1957, or Thatcher's fight over the British Budget in the 1980s, led other member states constantly to mistrust British motives and perpetuated the image of Britain as the "awkward partner". Regaining trust will be a long uphill struggle.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that Britons are more expressively Eurosceptic than others. However, there are crucial cultural, rational, strategic, institutional and historical reasons for this. In general, the underlying cause is quite simple: Britons are afraid of the European Union because they are forced to adapt their specific cultural and institutional rules and values towards what emerges as a common European norm, which they dislike. Because European integration started as a project around particular Continental - perhaps even particularly Franco-German - rules and norms, Britons believe that, as European unification proceeds, they have to change considerably more than their Continental counterparts. But it is important to understand that, leaving aside fringe movements, this is not so much a movement against Europe itself, or even against integration; rather, it expresses an aspiration to another kind of European Union.

Alexej Behnisch, currently studying at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, was the winner of the 2002 Webb Essay Prize, awarded by the Foreign Policy Centre in association with the Webb Memorial Trust and the New Statesman. The subject for this year was: "Why are we afraid of the European Union?"

The judges were Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary; Gerard Errera, the French ambassador to the UK; Mark Leonard, director of the Foreign Policy Centre; Dianne Hayter of the Webb Memorial Trust; and Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, How Blair put 30,000 more in jail