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Home Opinion British EU membership in an age of insecurity
Integration • Interdependence • Polling

British EU membership in an age of insecurity

Michael McTernan - 03 May 2012

Today’s politics is squeezed between huge policy challenges arising from global, transnational forces and democratic demands from within the nation state. In this context, the EU represents both hope and fear

Not so long ago the European Union represented a promising future for many of its citizens and member states. It’s ambitious political project and, in particular, the Single Market with its open borders for goods, capital, services and people, brought opportunities for the creation of what American scholar Robert Kagan duplicitously labelled a “postmodern paradise.” Today it could not be more different: the EU risks becoming an amplifier for people’s fears and insecurities.

The UK has of course had a very distinctive relationship with this European political project: it is characterised by ambivalence and reticence. Yet as the future of the EU becomes ever more important for British interests a new polling from Policy Network reveals that this relationship has not changed: many citizens remain wary of EU integration or, indeed, the prospect of any further integration. Just over half the general public think there should be a referendum on EU membership. Culturally, politically and economically people feel they have more in common with the US (49%) and Australia (28%) than with France (11%) and Germany (10%).

These headline stats are hardly new, yet the body of polling reveals a number of important insights into the countervailing sentiments which are shaping attitudes to Europe and the practice of politics.

Echoing traditional French sentiments, most British people want the EU to be a somewhat protective institution. There is strong support for Europe level co-operation in sharing intelligence in order to combat terrorism and organised crime through the EU (71%). Just over half think it would be best to use the EU  to tackle illegal migration (59%) and to share defence resources in order to reduce costs (52%). The flip side of this desire for protection is that correspondingly there exists a strong belief that Britain can go it alone to arrange solutions to transnational challenges such as climate change (53%), military action (48%) and trade agreements with emerging economic powers (59%).

These figures reveal a wider point about national politics and the layers of global interdependence which define our world today.  The fact that significant numbers of people think Britain can best tackle climate change and global military threats by itself says a lot about the expectations gap which afflicts liberal democracies. Politicians have not found a way to frame their waning national power and protect their citizens in the face of global economic integration. Their inability to deliver on promises of protection leads to a loss of political legitimacy – a problem which is further exacerbated by the growing movement of populist parties from the fringes to the centre of political debate.

There is a large number of people who believe that the EU stifles the UK economy - despite the benefits accrued from the Single Market - and by implication that Britain is better of again standing back: 68% would be more supportive of Britain integrating if they thought it would help the UK economy; 47% if they thought it would help deal with the rise of the BRIC countries; and 57% would be more supportive of the EU if Britain was guaranteed independence in key policy areas such as taxation.

There are also significant levels of concern about the influence of the UK in Europe, which is one of the key conditions people have for giving more support to the EU.  British people would be more supportive of EU membership if the UK had more influence on European politics, and, as detailed above, the direction of the European economy. As well as traditional levels of euro scepticism in the British establishment, this might also amount to a problem of perception: France and Germany make the headlines, while the UK is increasingly sidelined when it comes to the big decisions.

Interestingly, the polling also echoes the currents of the eurozone crisis: despite the rhetorical shift from austerity to calls for growth, 45% of British people said they would be more supportive of the EU if debt brakes were set on the amount a country could borrow. 45% of Labour supporters also make this point (55% Tory; 53% Lib Dems), while only a tiny minority seems to object (4%). Most would also support the EU if the UK received a bigger share of funding, reflective of the Northern creditor-Southern debtor political cleavages evident across much of Europe.

So what does this all mean? Today’s politics is squeezed between huge policy challenges arising from global, transnational forces and democratic demands from within the nation state. In this context, the EU represents both hope and fear: hope that the pressures can be alleviated through collective strength and co-ordinated action. Fear that an additional layer of constraint over national sovereignty has been created which only amplifieswidespread anxieties about the rapid changes our societies are confronted with. The EU urgently needs to adjust to this age of insecurity if it is to respond to its citizen's expectations.

It might start by taking note of the emerging intergenerational differences in relation to how people perceive the European project. Younger British people are generally more aware of growing interdependence and are more supportive of greater EU co-ordination to tackle global challenges – and they are also among the less inclined to call for a referendum. However, young people are much less supportive of Europe-wide reforms to make the EU more competitive than older groups, and they show lower support for Britain “staying in the EU but only as members of a free trade area”. It appears that younger voters are more pro-European but at the same time more disillusioned with the projects market orientation.  

Michael McTernan is editor and senior researcher at Policy Network

To view a full summary of Policy Network's polling on Britain and the Survival of the European project click here.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The Future of the EU.

Tags: Michael McTernan , European Union , UK , polling , euro , Robert Kagan , single market , Europe

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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