February 5, 2013
Barely one month has passed since British Prime Minister David Cameron gave his long-awaited speech on the future of the UK in or out of the EU. In short, he has promised voters that he would hold a referendum on Britain’s 40-year European Union membership by 2017, after he renegotiated Britain’s ties to the bloc and as long as he is re-elected in 2015. In so doing, he has seen his popularity rise in polls and has received criticism from across Europe. British Conservatives and Tory backbenchers have praised him as a national hero.
In recent months, British euroscepticism is at its strongest since the 80s, when Margaret Thatcher obtained a £3.5 billion a year rebate, still in force today. More and more, Brussels is seen as a power centre which invades national competences and misuses British taxpayers money in projects the UK has no interest in or in helping the ‘feckless Mediterranean countries’, as someone has said.
Nevertheless behind this euroscepticism lies something else too. The economic and financial crisis is urging the EU to speed up some processes its leaders have been speaking about for a long time. Before providing some examples, it is worth recalling that the UK has not joined either the Euro or the Schengen agreement. Here it comes the escalation of the London moving away from Brussels. The UK has been the only EU country which has not taken part in the bailouts to Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain even though the financial crisis arrived in Europe via the English Northern Rock e Bradford&Bingley and the Scottish Royal Bank of Scotland e Halifax Bank of Scotland.
Secondly the UK did not contribute to the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and later to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) aimed at helping States and banks in trouble. In January 2012 the UK (and the Czech Republic) did not sign the fiscal compact, which the other 25 European leaders agreed on after months of negotiations. More recently the UK expressed the clear intention to not take part in the new European banking union nor in the new supervisory mechanism which is meant to prevent any further financial crisis from occurring in the future.
Moreover, London has been reported to have tried to prevent such a mechanism from being set up in Europe in order not to lose the City banks’ independence to act in the financial markets however they prefer. In this respect, London has been struggling against the adoption of a financial transaction tax (FTT) in Europe for years again to defend the City’s interests. The EU managed to go ahead with such a proposal only thanks to a mechanism known as ‘enhanced cooperation’ which allows those countries of the Union that wish to continue to work more closely together to do so, while respecting the legal framework of the Union.
Strongly defending finance but hardly the environment and social issues. While the UK has proven to be quite keen on protecting its financial and banking independence, environmental issues and workers’ rights have been given far less attention. European environmental regulations are often perceived as an obstacle for national companies and the Brussels’ ruling on working time or other welfare related issues are seen as an invasion of national subsidiarity. Also, other EU funding schemes such as the CAP – for which London already receive a 3.5 billion rebate, are considered a waste of money of no matter for London.
In the light of all these events, and after Cameron’s speech on a possible referendum for an in-out option – so without considering his political convenience, does British euroscepticism look more like a matter of independence or as a matter of interest?