May 8, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

The Gaullist Ghost in the British Election

Workers applaud as Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife return to 10 Downing Street. REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau

Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party have swept to victory in Britain’s general election. Which means the British probably will get a chance to show whether Charles de Gaulle was right after all.

Fifty years ago, de Gaulle, the imperious French president, twice vetoed British membership in what became the European Union. De Gaulle listed his reasons. Britain was a maritime nation with worldwide connections, more committed to its ties with the British Commonwealth and, especially, the United States, than to its European neighbors. It was an off-shore island, “not continental.” And, de Gaulle said, Britain harbored a “deep-seated hostility” to European unity.

The European Common Market, as it was then, comprised “a compact geographic and strategic unit.” Britain, de Gaulle said, just didn’t fit.

Britain eventually joined the Common Market in 1973, after de Gaulle stepped down. But after more than 40 years inside the European Club, it still doesn’t fit.

The “deep-seated hostility” remains, mostly outside London, among the nationalistic “little Englanders,” in the Europhobic wing of Cameron’s Conservative Party and, most stridently, in much of the nation’s tabloid press.

Cameron bowed to this hostility when he announced two years ago that he would renegotiate Britain’s terms of EU membership. Then, he said, he would hold a national referendum in 2017, a yes-no vote asking the British people whether they want to stay in the EU.

The big problem: the reforms Cameron wanted would mean that the EU would stop being the EU.

All this depended, of course, on Cameron’s Tories still being in power in 2017. This election all but guaranteed that they will.

(I have to ask the forgiveness of readers for straying so far from my usual Midwestern turf. As a foreign correspondent, I wrote the story when de Gaulle first vetoed British membership. I covered British membership in 1973 and, later, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s increasing rancor toward Brussels, a rancor she bequeathed to her once pro-EU Tories. Having watched these problems blossom, it’s fascinating to see them now in full bloom.)

Britain has always been an awkward member of the EU, demanding special treatment and budget breaks. It’s by far the biggest EU member with no plans to adopt the euro: Poland is another non-euro country but plans to join.

The euro’s problems and the sad post-recession performance of the Eurozone economies have only strengthened euro-skepticism in Britain. So have migrants from new EU members in eastern Europe, which under EU rules have free movement within the Union.

It was against these attitudes that Cameron promised his referendum. He began by acknowledging that Britain is different. “Our geography has shaped our psychology,” he said. “We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel.” Because of this, Britain’s attitude toward the EU “is more practical than emotional.”

Throw in the recent problems in Europe, he said, and “democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin.” British voters probably will vote to leave the EU unless “fundamental, far-reaching changes” are negotiated before then.

It’s these “fundamental, far-reaching changes” that are the problem.

Cameron said he wants to slow up and reverse the flow of regulations from Brussels. He wants more power flowing back to national parliaments from Brussels. He wants the ability of nations such as Britain to opt out of objectionable EU decisions.

But mostly, he urged that EU abandon its goal of increasing political unity and become just a “single market”–in essence, a free trade zone within which countries would cooperate but would retain full sovereignty.

This sounds reasonable to the Brits, but is being rejected by the EU’s continental members. They simply see European unity differently from the British. Cameron was right that Britain, unlike the continentals, are “more practical than emotional” about EU membership.

The continental Europeans–especially original members such as France and Germany–are very emotional about membership, and for a reason.

The EU started life as a free trade zone–the Common Market–but its founders always intended it to be something closer to a United States of Europe. Economic efficiency never was its purpose. Rather, it aimed to use economic agreements to forge Europeans nations closer together, so they never again would fight the ruinous wars that wracked the continent in the first half of the 20th century.

In other words, the EU isn’t an economic union, and wasn’t meant to be. It aims to be a political union, almost an historical union, with one goal–no more Hitlers. This is the “emotional” factor that Cameron doesn’t share and can’t see.

The EU has always sought “widening and deepening”–that is, a growing membership and a deeper union. Its members see it not as a finished project but a process toward unity. Cameron wants to throw this process in reverse.

Britain suffered in the world wars but, unlike the other European nations, was never occupied or defeated. As Churchill said, World War II was “its finest hour.” The English Channel may be only 20 miles wide, but the emotional gap between Britain and its European neighbors is oceanic.

When Cameron demands that any negotiations make the EU less of a union and more of a single market, he is asking the Europeans to make the EU something it was never meant to be.

This is not to say that the negotiations will fail, or that Cameron lacks allies. Some of the EU’s other newer members–the Swedes and Danes, or the Hungarians–also are more lukewarm members than the true believers of Berlin and Paris.

But the odds still favor a “Brexit,” as the British exit is called. With his election victory, Cameron has two years to sway the continentals, or to convince the British that they’re better in than out.

Otherwise, bad times loom. A Brexit would weaken both the EU and Britain. But a U-turn from greater unity would derail a European project that, for all its problems, has brought decades of peace and prosperity to a continental battleground.

Unhappily, de Gaulle had it right.

About

Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.

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