The gap between the denizens of the United Kingdom and the EU can be explained by a historic feeling of superiority over the mainland and Brussels bureaucracy’s poor correlation with the British sense of democracy. EURACTIV’s partner WirtschaftsWoche reports.
Ronald G. Asch teaches at the University of Freiburg. Among his main research areas is 16th and 17th century British history.
Asch spoke with WirtschaftsWoche’s Ferdinand Knauß.
If you asked a Brit from the 17th century whether they were European or not, what would they have said?
In 17th century England, there was already a feeling of superiority over the rest of the continent. Well-known barrister Sir Edward Coke cited the Roman poet Virgil in a parliamentary debate in the 1620s, claiming “No other state is like this: we are divisos ab orbe Britannos” – completely separated from the rest of the world.
He meant that they had their own legal system of common law and that their – supposed – liberties dated back to the pre-Norman age. This superiority complex appears to have appeared in the late 15th century, after the end of the Hundred Years War, when the kingdom was no longer politically present on the continent.
The Brexit campaign has made liberal use of words like “independence” and “freedom”. The alleged lack of democracy when it comes to the Commission has been one of the focal points of their ire.
The long tradition of English civil liberties is somewhat of a historic myth. But it’s one thats been used so often that it has become the reality. England is the only country that has had a continuous transition from an assembly of estates into a modern parliament. In all other European countries, there were disruptions. Obviously, the parliament of the 18th century was not democratic. Suffrage only started to come about to some extent in the 1880s.
In today’s European Parliament, there is a coalition of most of the large parties, which serves to contain conflicts to some extent. The Commission is increasingly taking on the powers of an actual government, but it is not democratically elected and therefore cannot be removed. In the Council and the Council of Ministers, responsibility for decisionmaking is obscured by the collective nature of the system. English criticisms of the undemocratic or post-democratic nature of the EU is, in my opinion, largely justified.
On the other hand, one cannot resolve conflicts of interest between nations through majority decision, because the small countries end up drawing the short straw. So things can only be solved through negotiation and consensus. British democracy is very much based on the concept of government and opposition, with the latter able to force the dismissal of the former. That doesn’t work at a European level.
Can you explain the British people’s distance from the EU through significant historical events?
The memory of the Second World War and how it is interpreted is important. When the EEC was founded, it was somewhat a community of losers. Germany was, naturally, the biggest loser and a pariah. But France was a victor in name alone, given how it had been invaded and occupied, and Italy had originally stood on the German side. The English experience was different though, they had pushed back Hitler’s forces all by themselves. The differing interpretations of the traumatic times suffered by Europe during the First and Second World Wars is most different in the UK than other countries.
All countries have different ways of looking at the EU. Many Germans would choose European identity over their own, for example.
This feeling in England is, of course, very weak. It happened in Italy though, even before the Eurocrisis, because many of its citizens were disatisfied with their country. In Germany, though, this feeling is more ambivalent, and there is more a feeling or a hope that Europe will become like a big Germany. We are one of the few federalised member states that have a strong, balanced constitutional court, which could be a model for the EU. Germans see the EU as a legal community. For the French and others, that hasn’t been the case, as demonstrated by the careless handling of the Maastricht treating and the Euocrisis.
German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, as well as other big names in the EU, have warned against Brexit. Is that going to have any effect on normal British people?
If a German minister says something, then it can backfire, because they can be accused of just being self-serving. The image of Germany in the pro-Brexit conservative press, like the Daily Telegraph, seems to me like it comes from 1915. To them, Germany will always be the Huns that want to subjugate Europe. Obama’s thoughts on Brexit was something else, because he wasn’t representing his own interests. Yet he was still attacked for it.
What makes the UK particularly valuabel to the EU?
The UK acts as an important counterweight to the concept, which Europe wants to establish, where the state controls the economy and where everything is centrally controlled, after the French tradition. The UK, even though it has achieved little over the last 30 years in Brussels, warns repeatedly that we owe our freedom to a parliamentary democracy and that it cannot easily be replaced by the decision-making mechanisms in Brussels.
The UK serves as a counterweight to calls for ever-closer union. And for Germany, the UK is a potential ally against the southern European states and the French.