Over the past few decades in Britain, it’s been easy to get yourself branded a xenophobe, racist, or simply a nutcase: all you had to do was express misgivings about the European Union. Euro-skeptics, as they’re called here, were kept firmly on the periphery of public debate, not to be taken seriously, and if given airtime, were considered positively harmful. The fact that the U.K. population has generally registered views on the EU ranging from passive hostility to (more commonly) aggressive indifference was neither here nor there. As with most orthodoxies of our time, political, cultural, and media elites believed that they knew best, and they yielded to no one in their support for what some still call the European “project.”
All of that is changing remarkably fast. The looming catastrophe of the euro (the single common currency) has allowed a sudden widening of acceptable viewpoints on Britain’s membership in what most now see as a slowly sinking ship. What was once regarded as a crackpot position held only by reactionaries and so-called “Little Englanders” is now at least receiving a hearing on, for example, the staunchly pro-Europe BBC. No longer dismissible as little more than a form of mental instability, Euro-skepticism has become a valid viewpoint, one that might prove to have history on its side.
Britain is sighing in relief at its decision not to join the single currency, though most of the euro’s former cheerleaders haven’t admitted that they got it wrong. A few prominent commentators, such as the historian and journalist Sir Max Hastings and the Times columnist Matthew Parris, have had the courage to recant. The London-based Centre for Policy Studies has just published a pamphlet, Guilty Men, which attempts to call to account those respected institutions—including the Financial Times and the BBC—that tirelessly made the case for Britain’s membership while at the same time denigrating the opposition, often in highly personal terms.
Generally, however, an embarrassed silence has been the order of the day. Such sheepishness on the part of the pro-EU voices is perhaps understandable; lots of intellectual and social capital is at stake. But events are now moving at such a pace that apologies are becoming a side issue. Skeptics recall the speed with which the Soviet Eastern Bloc crumbled as valid evidence that the EU could implode as rapidly—not just within our lifetimes, but possibly within the next five to ten years.
In the meantime, there remains the question of a referendum on British membership. Both Tony Blair and the current prime minister, David Cameron, at various points promised public votes on new EU treaties. Both reneged, fueling resentment and a mounting sense that there was something innately undemocratic about all things EU. The possibility of a referendum—not just on this new constitution or that “consolidating treaty,” but on whether Britain should remain in the EU at all—remains far off the political agenda, largely because of government fears that such a vote would go the wrong way. But it is no longer inconceivable. Indeed, Euro-skeptic Conservatives in Parliament forced the issue recently, and the resulting debate in Parliament yesterday saw 80 of them voting against the direction of the Cameron leadership—the biggest such rebellion ever seen on the Europe issue. And a new cross-party campaign group, the People’s Pledge, which calls for a referendum on the matter, held a rally in central Westminster last weekend. Activists and politicians from across the British political spectrum made the case that the time has come to decide, once and for all, where Britain stands.
Constitutional and legal niceties relating to the EU have traditionally brought forth a stifled yawn from the British people. But the crisis in the euro, coupled with growing disquiet over the ways in which European Human Rights legislation directly affects the country’s immigration and crime policies, has led to an increased awareness of the EU’s nature and a hardening of attitudes against it. In the most recent opinion poll on the issue in the Sunday Times, 54 percent said they believed that the main political parties try to suppress debate about Britain’s EU membership. A full 70 percent believed that the country should try to renegotiate its treaties with Europe. Most strikingly, 54 percent thought that Britain should leave the EU altogether, which is in line with other surveys showing the 50 percent barrier being broken for the first time.
Momentum—indeed, mainstream public opinion—is now with the Euro-skeptics. They have every right to say that they told us so.