We are the voice of insurance and long-term savings | Contact us

We are living more closely with our EU neighbours but where do we go from here?

For the last 25 years, the relationship of British politics to the EU has been shaped by major events; episodic moments which have caused seismic internal rows within the main UK political parties. The on-off UK-EU relationship has felt like that of a long-standing couple who have furious rows, usually followed by a sulky acceptance on the British side that we have to carry on living together. But with the Eurozone in crisis and 20 years on from Maastricht, are we finally accepting that the living arrangements are more permanent than we have hitherto acknowledged?

For both the Conservative and Labour governments of the last quarter century, the EU provoked bitter internal conflict, especially around treaty revision. Disagreements over EU strategy triggered Geoffrey Howe’s resignation and Mrs Thatcher’s subsequent downfall and John Major’s government never recovered from the divisions fuelled by the Maastricht rebellion. In November 1997 within just six months of Labour taking power, disagreement over the Euro led one of the earliest and deepest sources of conflict between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, destabilising the new Labour government in a manner that set the pattern for the decade to follow. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ public preoccupation with Euro-scepticism certainly cost it seats in both the 2001 and 2005 elections as it devoted valuable campaign airtime to an issue that was a low priority for floating voters.

So what may be changing and why?

Economics is at the heart. The generations of Britons born over the last 70 years have taken it for granted that the EU’s economic impact is essentially benign; a single market for the UK to export to and take part in as a trading block. Now for the first time since the apocalyptic conflict of World War II, decisions being taken in mainland Europe threaten to have a major negative impact on the prosperity of Britons for decades to come. We don’t need to wholeheartedly buy the Chancellor’s analysis that the Euro woes are the cause of our recession (after all, few of his own MPs seem to) to get the overall message that our long term economic well-being is entwined with the ability of EU leaders and central bankers to avoid  a calamitous decade of depression.

But the effect of the EU’s growing relationship to our lives has also been cumulative. Children born in the year we entered the then ‘Common Market’ will be celebrating their 40th birthdays next year. The last decade, in particular, has seen a very significant irreversible integration of EU standards into our lives. As a Labour press officer in the 1999 European Parliament elections, I remember campaign discussions where we agonised over ways to make Europe and the Parliament seem relevant on the doorstep; in the end we settled on the European ‘CE’ kitemark but our campaign materials didn’t exactly set the streets alight with excitement. 12 years on, EU involvement in our lives is much more mainstream; how our mobile phones and energy bills are priced, how our insurance companies and financial services are regulated, how the air-conditioning in our offices and shops is operated and how our labour markets operate.

Furthermore the major challenges we face as societies are far more common across Western Europe than we realise or care to think about. In one way or another, all the major EU economies face tackling the effects of an ageing society, reforming welfare systems, immigration, developing national business specialisms to match the industrial might of China, the challenges of property prices and unemployment for the young and delivering sustainable development, to name just a few.

We are living more closely together with our European neighbours then but where do we go from here politically? In one sense, the change has already happened; our governing politicians are increasingly EU-literate and understand, even if they don’t always convey this in public, the limits of their power and the role of the EU institutions. In particular, this Coalition Government has consciously tried to ensure stronger official representation in Brussels and has tried to handle EU dynamics differently, David Cameron’s veto notwithstanding.

While closer integration and political decision-making are a fact of life, the political classes remain jittery that public Euro-scepticism could leave them exposed as complicit in a transfer of power – hence recent talk of a referendum being needed at some point. This is all unchartered territory, not least because nobody knows the extent to which public antipathy towards the EU is driven by indignation at the European Convention of Human Rights (a completely separate beast unrelated to the EU) rather than the EU itself and its policies.

Either way, what started out as a trading alliance 40 years ago has long since turned into an established cohabitation, even if the Brits like to pretend it is an open relationship with a constant eye on the door in a way that constantly grates with their EU partners. But the real test for the relationship lies ahead. Economic prosperity has made the EU an easy reality for Britons for most of the last 20 years, but if the European economy turns sour for a generation, the partnership will be tested as never before.



Last updated 29/06/2016