Euroskepticism in Great Britain should be seen as “business as usual” but recent events tell us that it is no longer as simple as that. The recent steep rise in polls of the anti-EU, nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the consequent shifting political mood in London about the referendum on EU membership have put euroskepticism at the at the center of debate Nevertheless, it is the credibility of the political establishment and its austerity program that are really at stake.
Indeed, the UKIP and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage deserve a good deal of attention. They performed well in the last county elections and they showed an unprecedented rise in polls earlier this spring – something that did not go unnoticed by major newspapers and commentators, although the UKIP has been in the game for 20 years now. Its platform is based on the idea that Great Britain should not have joined the EU in the first place and that keeping the British pound, preserving distinct corporate and financial regulations, halting any intrusion from Brussels and being outside of the Schengen treaty is simply not enough.
Furthermore, the UKIP’s constituency is mostly composed by wealthier white middle-aged Englishmen, with some minor appeal among unqualified workers. Geographically, UKIP supporters live in South England and in rural areas outside the reach of busy Londoners. The UKIP is a mostly English phenomenon as it is not very popular in Wales or Scotland.
The UKIP’s social and geographical strongholds therefore greatly overlap with the Tories’ and this is why the Conservative Party is suffering the most damage from the nationalists’ success. Former Tory voters are now UKIP voters; some former LibDem and Labour voters have switched over as well, but in less significant numbers. That said, figures show that the UKIP may not conquer any seat in upcoming parliamentary elections (partly as a consequence of the British electoral system), even if it could assert itself as the third political force in England. So, why is all the attention on the UKIP and its anti-European policies?
True, euroskepticism is no longer a British exclusive but it is rather popular throughout the European Union, especially in Northern European countries. Euroskepticism, according to Eurobarometer and several other public opinion surveys, is no longer a vague nationalist sentiment, rather it is a widespread and possibly growing movement of opinion, rooted in the crisis of the eurozone.
Since 2008, with the financial crisis challenging many European democracies, confidence in the European Union’s institutions and their capability to respond to urgent problems and current issues has dramatically dropped in member states as diverse as France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland and of course Great Britain. Simultaneously, it seems as if the European Union crossed the line, interfering in what were perceived by public opinion as mostly domestic policies that should remain under the direct control of national governments, Parliaments and thus electorates.
People suffering from the consequences of the fiscal compact, the tax increases and the spending cuts based on what were regarded as impositions from EU bureaucrats, mostly turned towards national political parties that claimed to support an opposite kind of policy. It was no longer a matter of transparency and democracy of the main European institutions, but rather the outright rejection of EU rule over what is perceived as crucial economic policy issues.
Current political events in the UK are the most striking example of these dynamics. More than elsewhere in Europe, disappointment with the EU and the policies of pro-EU parties has piled on top of pre-existing euroskepticism. Nevertheless, euroskepticism in Britain, as measured by Eurobarometer, has not increased that much, especially if compared with other European countries. Moreover, the EU is not the main concern for British voters, according to a recent poll from the Guardian. Rather, it is the economic crisis and spending cuts.
As a matter of fact, an alternative narrative for the rising support for the UKIP could be that, as confirmed by many commentators, voters express their discomfort with the current political establishment by choosing the UKIP as a “none of the above option”. Once given the opportunity through by-elections and local elections, voters reject not just mainstream politics but also mainstream leadership: Eaton-educated 40-something men, lacking a full understanding of the everyday struggles of both the middle and working classes. This pattern was visible already in the late Labour era, only it did not manifest itself through increased support to the UKIP rather through more votes to the LibDems.
This narrative, however, is not popular within the Conservative Party which is focusing on British membership to the EU. In the face of rising pressure from Tory backbenchers, David Cameron is sticking to his promise to hold a referendum on this issue by the end of 2017. He is now firmly warning his conservative colleagues that this date is not up for renegotiation, regardless of how keen they are to halt the UKIP’s surge in polls before the next general elections in 2015.
As he stated in many interviews with the media, his main focus now is “fixing the economy and reforming welfare” and then, and only then, at the end of 2017, will he deal with the bigger picture, namely a more flexible and just European Union.
As a matter of fact, this is the dilemma: the state of the economy versus the state of the European Union. European leaders still fail to explain how a better, well-functioning EU, would actually be the best option against the economic crisis. The connection between the institutional reform of the EU and the economic crisis is often lost in London, but sometimes in other capitals and perhaps even in Brussels. This should be the main concern connected to the domino effect of a British dropout from the EU.
Further evidence should come from the concern showed by US President Barack Obama, who directly asked David Cameron on several occasions to stop the referendum process from escalating. There are indeed solid reasons to be worried about the “Brexit” scenario, as the UK would pay a price for divorcing the EU.
For many leaders, including David Cameron, it is now clear that many countries, even those formally outside the EU, still have a strong incentive to comply with some of its standards, as is the case for Switzerland and Norway. Thus, even outside the EU, the United Kingdom would still somehow have to submit its exports to EU tariffs and production standards. Leaving the Union could also result in many job losses as employers could favor less expensive European job markets and there could be less convenience for UK workers to move across Europe and the other way around. It could also affect entire production sectors: the UK could face for instance the loss of its Airbus production to Germany or France, two countries that wouldn’t have any customs duties.
It is equally true that the European Union would pay a price for the loss of a country the size of Great Britain, particularly on matters of security and defense.
All these considerations point towards increased integration – exactly the opposite direction from that advocated by nationalist parties in England and across Europe. As a matter of fact, the main challenge for both the UK and other European leaders rests on stating this simple principle: a more democratic, transparent and effective European Union serves the cause of increased affluence and democracy for all European countries. From what we have seen until now, dealing with this exclusively through the golden rule of the “fiscal compact” is not exactly the best fix.