Opinion: Why losing Britain might be good for EU

UK policy has pushed for common market but been brake on social Europe

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker meeting British prime minister David Cameron at Chequers, Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/PA Wire

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker meeting British prime minister David Cameron at Chequers, Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/PA Wire

 

As the Brexit referendum approaches, some of the rest of Europe is beginning to ask: do we really want them anyway?

Arguably Brexit would strengthen that amorphous thing, the “European project”, not least because it could begin to restore Europe’s progressive dimension.

This British distance from Europe is often understood as parochial and isolationist. In fact the imperial legacy means Britain is more connected to the rest of the world than any other major European society.

Consider for example, British emigration. If a diaspora is defined as people living outside the country in which they were born, then in 2002 only China and India had a larger diaspora than Britain.

Throughout the 20th century this British emigration went largely to the US and the old “white” Commonwealth. Only in recent decades has there been mass emigration to Europe, overwhelmingly second home and retirement migration.

There has also been considerable population movement the other way, although in recent decades dwarfed by immigration from India and Pakistan and even more recently from Poland.

This immigration has long ceased to be predominantly unskilled. Britain is an extreme case within Europe in the extent to which members of what sociologists call the “service class” (the professional and managerial groups) were born outside the country.

British firms are far more likely than French or German firms to have foreigners in their senior management teams. These movements of people connect Britain – or better England – to the rest of the world, but far more to the extended Anglo world than to Europe.

Normal franchise

extracommunitari

A Pakistani citizen resident in the UK can vote on British EU membership, a French or a Polish citizen resident in the UK cannot. All of this means appeals to “European solidarity” have little purchase. Of course, across Europe virtually all Europeans define their identity primarily in national terms. People remain first and foremost French, Polish or whatever. The question is whether they see themselves also as European.

According to Eurobarometer data, within each nation a few people define themselves as simply European, and a few more define themselves as primarily European “and also of . . . nationality”. The significant groups are firstly, those who define themselves in exclusively national terms, and secondly, those who define themselves as primarily national but also “European”.

National terms

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In many ways the British social structure is now less European than before. In all of Europe the degradation (and denigration) of its traditional working class has gone furthest, its management is the most Americanised. Income distribution has become more unequal and so, despite considerable amelioration under the New Labour governments (1996–2010), the UK has some of the most extreme poverty in western Europe. The changes since the Thatcher revolution have made Britain a more market-based society than any other in Europe.

British government policy towards the EU calls for completion of the single market. At the same time successive UK governments have completely ignored that if a single market is to have any legitimacy it will require more European institutions and a European regional policy, a European social policy and European employment regulation.

The UK has often opposed labour market regulations and/or obtained opt-outs (such as the partial opt-out from the working time directive).

British policy has promoted a widening but not a deepening of Europe. This is hardly surprising, because what British governments – and indeed most UK citizens – have wanted is at most a common market. A British exit could, therefore, remove one brake on social Europe.

Prof James Wickham is lead researcher on Tasc’s Working Conditions in Ireland Project

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