Commentary by Louis VIS
In a recent series of articles on Euroscepticism, I demonstrated that the United Kingdom was the European Union’s most Eurosceptic Member State. In light of these findings, I also tried to explain that ultimately a mix of political, social and cultural factors are also needed to fully explain people’s perception of the EU. But one may wonder why Britain does not ‘feel’ European.
From a geographical point of view, Britain has always been on the ‘edge’ of Europe. Indeed, it did not have a direct physical connection to the continent until the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994. However, one only has to look at Ireland to realise that geography alone cannot explain why Britons do not feel European. The same applies to the historical argument. Although Britain has always had very strong relations with the rest of the world through its former empire and the Commonwealth, history alone cannot explain why many Britons do not feel European. Both France and Spain had large empires until the middle of the 20th century, yet French and Spanish citizens mostly feel at home within the EU. What then can explain this lack of European identity in the UK?
One often ignored reason that can explain why Britons do not fully identify with Europe is that Britain never fully took part in Europe and voters therefore never fully understood it. When the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was created in 1957, the United Kingdom decided to not take part in the project and stay out of all initial negotiations. However, by ‘failing to join the European project in its infancy [it] meant that the rules of what would then become the European Union were drawn up to suit ‘them’ not ‘us’.’ Furthermore, once the UK joined the EU in 1973, it never got fully involved in the project. As the project of European unity developed overtime, the UK often preferred to stay out of these developments. The country thus never joined the Schengen area, it never adopted the euro, it never fully opted into the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Chapter, and only joined the European Social Chapter after Tony Blair decided to reverse the ‘opt-out’. I therefore strongly believe that Britons do not identify as European simply because their country has always kept itself at arm’s length from its European neighbours. Ultimately, its citizens therefore never formally lived under the same rules or enjoyed the same benefits of their European counterparts.
This was highlighted during the referendum campaign. Whilst canvasing with the ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign in my local area, I realised how little people actually knew and how little people were told about Europe and the European Union. On the continent, secondary school children get to learn about the EU and voters are kept up-to-date through the media. It is hardly surprising then that voters decided to leave the EU of 23rd June 2016.