Since its accession to the EU in 1973, Britain was a defiant member state-reluctant to agree on most of the EU norms, yet picking and choosing what it deemed suitable for its own interest.
Driven by economic interests, it joined the EU—it refused to be at the table at Messina when it realized that the Six founding members wanted more than a ‘free trade area’ for the EEC in 1975; UK also applied for EC membership several times in the 1960s for no other reason than that the Six original members were registering high rates of economic growth, while it was suffering from ‘British Disease’—it soon realized its colonial leadership to be threatened predominantly by the Franco-German alliance that was running the wheels of EU’s vision for a collective European Community- a set up seeking to ensure peace and reconciliation among its European neighbours through economic and political integration. While most of the member states shore up EU’s vision and stood in solidarity despite extraordinary economic crisis that hit hard the continent, and hold exit as the last resort, Britain showed its detachment to any such commitment.
The reason behind this detachment towards EU’s vision and commitment lays down mostly in Britain’s historical state of eurosceptic and imperialistic tendency that always kept it aloof from its European neighbours. Initial traces of this eurosceptic tendency can be traced back to 1985 to the articles of British newspapers which put forth vociferous statements of then conservative party that was increasingly opposing EU’s new phase of integration. For about 40 years, this eurosceptic tendency has constantly been fuelled by various political groups and its leaders—Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1975 sought to opt out from the EU after it failed to bring reforms in the common agricultural policy(CAP), however, Britain chose to remain with 67% votes favoured to stay in the EEC. Furthermore, Britain’s general citizens; the media; the conservative party; the UK independence Party (UKIP)—-all have been deeply suspicious of the EU’s functional role of being a ‘value based’ and ‘normative’ actor in the rest of Europe and to the world and fear that EU’s supranational norms may jeopardize Britain’s sovereignty and that it will need to make too many adjustments if it follows lead of other European states. Euro-scepticism therefore had a profound impact and it represents a formidable challenge to the ideology of ‘Europeanism’ to an extent of weakening the process of EU integration. Stephen George(2000) correctly claims that Britain was not simply ‘an awkward partner’ but should be considered a ‘Euro-sceptic state’.
While elements of euro-scepticism and imperialistic tendency continued to influence Britain’s decision of ‘staying in’ /‘opting out’ throughout, the terrifying step of Brexit on June 23, is induced through a mixture of social, political and economic reasons that Britain is instantly grappling with. The existential problems like terrible shortage of homes; an impossibly precarious job market and an ever increasing immigrant population pose serious challenges to Britain’s socio-cultural-economic set up. In addition to this, emergence of parallel eurosceptic forces within the conservative party; rise of UK independence party (UKIP) giving impetus to nationalist jingoist feelings; as well Conservative Party’s victory in the 2015 election—all gave thrust to the cold resentment and seething anger waiting to burst out its outright hatred towards non-Britons. David Cameroon’s disturbing speech in January 2013 only have triggered that sentiment spotting the tumultuous relation between EU/UK which finally reached to its zenith at Brexit point.
However, in the constant persuasion of prioritizing its national interests over collective one, what Britain lacking was a perspective to look beyond EU’s role as an economic entity. What it loses to see is an ‘idea’ that precedes the existence of the EU. For various reasons, most precisely for its complexities and blemishes, the EU appears mysterious to its member states and to the outsiders and is very often projected as a bloc of nation states only, which it is not. The idea of the EU is more than that. To demystify the EU, one needs to have a holistic understanding of structural, functional and punitive aspects of the EU that define its overall purpose and capabilities. The EU is exclusive and indispensable for its own member states for various reasons: (i) ever since its inception, the EU has grown into a global actor influencing the world politics as well as its member states through its soft and hard sticks. It flourishes with time showing its member states that they still could overcome their colonial greed, become a global power if united and can create a world of peace where resurgent of war is a distant reality; (ii) the EU eliminates traditional borders and teaches its member states to redefine their notion of ‘nation’ and ‘nationhood’—-that does not build upon imaginary territories/lines, but is made with people sharing common goals and objectives; (iii) the EU through its normative values, treaties and regulations put a check on member states and oblige them to comply with its wider goals and objectives; (iv) the EU has been consistently competing and contributing —(it is world’s largest donor of foreign aid: the EU and its member states contribute 60% of all official development assistance (ODA), benefiting 160 countries)—to the world with its single continental economy—keeping ‘euro’ as world’s second largest currency and also competing with the superpowers like China and USA; (v) as a value based entity, the EU pro-motes values of human rights, social justice etc. within and outside its borders. Despite neoliberal challenges, it reinforces the need of welfare commitments towards its member citizens and encour-age member states to shape their welfare policies accordingly; (vi) as an ever-growing global actor, it encourages countries to go for cooperation in economic, political, legal, social, educational, environmental and other domains to have a sustainable future together and therefore provides leadership to the global order—following the foot lines of its values and objectives, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa came together to form BRICS as a reflection of institutionalised peace and mutual respect; (vii) the EU acts as an indomitable shield to protect its borders and its member states through its security provider NATO. It also engages intensively in resolving emerging global security threats like transnational crime and terrorism; spread of weapons of mass destructions (WMD); environmental degradation and various other humanitarian disasters that accompany pandemics, collapsed states, civil wars, forced migrations, genocide, ethnic cleansing, natural disasters etc. Above all, what makes the EU exclusive for its member states is its process of ‘integration’—an everlasting institutional arrangement that continually expands to accommodate more diversities and differences and create a model peace and reconciliation. Though it faces some difficulties in such arrangements sometimes, nonetheless, the EU has been able to justify its purpose of existence over the time and it sustains quite successfully for more than 60 years now with 27 nation blocs housing more than 500 million people who learn stay together with their differences. This is the strength of the EU.
The EU member states understand the nature of this beast, without which, if each acted alone, they may face the wrath of polarisation and political chaos in contemporary world and would not be able to cope in a world that’s shifting its economic dominance towards the East. With assertive China and Russia putting an alarming situation in the global politics, members states if act alone may not make a secure and safe future. In short, the EU is a necessity for its member states and without its presence, individual countries will enter into a future which is bleak and unprotected. While Brexit is seen as a symbolic challenge to EU’s vision of integration process and poses threats to the very nature of its peaceful political project, speculations around its disintegration can be ignored on the ground that the EU has an innate capacity to evolve in a demanding world order as it connects to the world thorough its values—which are essential for continuation and sustainability. However, Brexit has reminded the EU that it should resolve the ‘democratic deficit’ oozing out from within and that it now needs to initiate some reforms through which it can regain the trust of its member states. This may be possible by making it more democratised and shedding those layers of bureaucratisation and authoritative characteristics for which it is often seen in a bad light. This may save the beast from other giants to hijack its visionary goals.
The defiant giant—Britain—may not anticipate what’s coming its way, but what still may be help-ful for it is those lessons and values that it received from the EU while dealing with any uncertainty. For now, speculations are mounting up on the ground that, cutting its ties with the EU may unleash economic tantrum and reactionary forces in the British economy predictably tightening the screws of austerity everywhere and end up favouring the resurgence of xenophobic sidekicks.