Britain's uneasy relationship with EU at crisis point


Q Why does Britain’s antipathy towards the EU seem greater than ever?

Twenty years ago, 26 Conservative MPs rebelled against prime minister John Major over the Maastricht Treaty in a House of Commons vote, where they failed by just three votes to stop its ratification.

Back then, the majority of them were regarded as cranks, even by those who were generally sympathetic towards their opposition to European Union membership.

However, they bored because they went on about it endlessly, as David Cameron once remarked – a man who desperately hoped that the Conservatives would not obsess about Europe during his time in charge.

Last Monday, the Maastricht rebels received a standing ovation from the Eurosceptic Bruges Group when it held a 20th anniversary dinner to mark “one of the most important House of Commons in the 20th Century”.

Today, the Maastricht rebels, and their successors, are no longer regarded as oddities in a country where anti-EU sentiment has grown dramatically in recent years.

For a start, the euro crisis has convinced some of the public that they were right all along; ever-more intrusive EU regulation has irritated, while the benefits of such regulation are ignored.

Sometimes, the EU is blamed for issues it had nothing to do with, such as the European Court of Human Rights ruling that prisoners should have the vote – an issue again angrily discussed by MPs yesterday.

A majority of public opinion is now firmly against membership at all, saying that they would vote to quit if they were given a say – a considerable shift since a majority previously grudgingly favoured membership.

Meanwhile, the tone of the debate is filled by Conservative MPs of a new generation, capable of expressing opposition without sounding obsessive; or by the UK Independence Party, which follows a populist anti-EU agenda.

Silent response

For now, the business world, heavily dependent on EU trade, is silent, while other figures, who believe that the UK’s voice in the world would be reduced by an exit, are equally slow to come forward.

It is a story of opportunities lost. Sixty years ago, the UK believed that European states would never agree to co-operate, or if they did that it would not work.

In the decades since, little has changed. Instead of taking the lead, the UK has repeatedly stood back, only to complain afterwards about the impact of measures it could have stopped.

Today, the UK is at a crossroads. Increasingly isolated, it is heading, inevitably it seems, towards a referendum whose scope could be harder to limit than some in favour of change, but not an EU exit, imagine.