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British walk-out from Europe has been a long time coming

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MPs held an emergency debate on 11 December over the Brexit vote (Screenshot via YouTube)
Debate in the British parliament over the Draft Agreement with Brussels, for Britain to leave the European Union, has produced above all fresh conflict, confusion and uncertainty. In this second of two reports, Dr  Lee Duffield, a long-time specialist on European affairs, says British involvement with the EU has always been a love-hate liaison.

“Biting the hand that feeds you” has been my description of the dogged British resistance to everything or anything the European Union was taking on — always the holdout voice, for decades.

Any group of leaders obstructing change was known as the “awkward squad” and Great Britain would be playing front row in it.

“LEAVE” VOTE WAS A LONG TIME COMING

The referendum vote to secede from Europe was a long time coming, but always helped on its way by barracking resisters — because many British interests, although often at war with one another, wanted it to happen.

That culture always looked like the product of life on an island with a tortured history of European relations, mostly war and invasion or attempted invasion, affecting the collective mind.

Some kind of perversive, hold-out pride in being the ones who dominated the world through the old British Empire also got mixed into it.

The attitude was widespread among political leaders, media, officials, the public and went beyond more rational policy differences like the United Kingdom’s drawn-out war against EU farm subsidies.

On the question of those subsidies, they had an efficient agricultural industry which could get by unaided, but the UK as a member country still had to contribute to the cost.

The hostile attitude carried on, however, even blind to European commitments that did favour England, especially the single market in financial services where London, powerful centre of finance, was dominant.

The costs of leaving have become obvious, with projections of a “no-deal” separation causing an 8–9% contraction of the British economy in a year.

Yet when Eastern European governments were falling over themselves to get into the EU and join the single Euro currency, the Brits, although committed to the Euro by treaty, hung back and delayed it.

CULTURAL RESISTANCE TO EUROPE

The British High Commissioner to Australia appointed in 2011, Paul Madden, agreed there was a cultural resistance to things European, partly because of competing ties like those to Australia.

However, the British, if they argued about many changes before agreeing, would act differently to enthusiastic continental European states which often failed to comply with the laws they’d supported.

Brits would show the foreigners a thing or two about being right by saying that when you finally had to be in it, you’d then give full compliance and be efficient.

“It’s not a deep division,” he said, diplomatically.

“As to the extent of our commitments, Britain has a very strong record for implementing EU legislation and that’s why we have a reputation for scrutinising new EU legislation very carefully before signing up to it.”

An aspect would be British Ministers cooperating at a Brussels summit or European Council, but then afterwards bashing the EU on television — a sweetener for bigots back home.

Break-downs in relations would occur often enough, the UK tail having a go at wagging the EU dog, as with resistance from the City of London to a financial tax plan in 2011

The former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the chief naysayer on Europe, while also, in general, the chief British post-war reactionary right up to the 2016 referendum on secession from Europe.

NAYSAYING

Reporting the 2015 announcement of the referendum by the later PM, David Cameron, raised Thatcher memories in my own despatch captionedVote on EU: Brits (at last!) may go’ :

Time and again, after a stick-up at negotiations over agriculture or other issue, on the objections of this one member, exasperation at Brussels was palpable.

 

Government leaders remained diplomatically restrained; but in the media gallery could be heard the more pragmatic response, for example: “why the f--k can’t they just get out of it?”

 

Mr Cameron’s Conservative Party harbours an intractable anti-European lobby; its position reflects more-widespread mental resistance in the island nation to closer affiliation with other European cultures.

An apogee in cross-channel abrasiveness was the 1988 “rude frog” spate between Thatcher and then French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who asked if she wanted his balls on a tray.

“I never could understand the French!” she told a crowd of journalists. “I cannot understand men!”

British tabloids headlined it: ‘Say sorry, rude frog!’

Exemplifying long-term undermining on Europe was the phenomenon of anti-Europeanists’ enjoying the paradox of getting themselves elected on grand salaries to the European Parliament.

Nigel Farage, erstwhile leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, remains an MEP.

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Another such one, the Eurosceptical Giles Chichester, British Conservative and son of the famous yachtsman, joked with a business audience about the “gravy train” that provided MEPs with cash out of proportion to their power.

(He was later accused of junketeering to Australia by a fellow MEP, Hans-Peter Martin, but exonerated of claims he had wrongly channeled large sums of EU money through a family company.)

THE ODDBALL COALITION

When the 2016 referendum came up, a mismatched and oddball coalition got the “no” across the line with 51.9% of those who turned out to vote.

Whether “ethno-nationalist” black-shirts in the streets or neo-cons looking to get away from not just European regulations but any and all business law or taxation; the one common factor was the same dogged British resistance at a cultural level cutting across the parties and classes.

It is unimaginable that dyed-in-the-wool British jingoists will have learned anything from the experience of negotiating with the EU over their “Brexit” and revelation of the full range of costs.

On the other hand, after 46 years in Europe, many Brits have got the idea of the EU as a fifth level of government where they get a full democratic say, easy enough to get on with and containing many advantages for themselves.

In the referendum, freedom-minded Scots (only 38% for leaving) and even “loyalist” Ulstermen (44.2% leave) voted to stay; hatred of the EU is a project for Little England (or to speak true, Little England less populous London which also went against leaving, just 40.1% voting to go).

EUROPE ALSO IN BRITISH CULTURE?

“Europe” is within the culture, whether among the 1.2 million British residents on the continent, university freshers looking forward to their “Erasmus” year in another EU country or families looking for maybe a French farmhouse for a sunshine retirement.

That is not a full antidote to the toxins of national isolation, enmity, empire and greed, but has demonstrated the potential to grow and bring about change in the culture as the days go by.

It would be a factor in any new vote, whether a general election to try and clear the fetid political air in England or a referendum on whether to accept leaving Europe, now that the terms are formally set out in an agreement.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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