A six weeks puzzle

Britain's ambivalence and the European Union

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 7.11.15
George Osborne at a meeting of the Federation of German Industries

Her voice ended on a note of interrogation. I had written "six weeks" in my landing card for length of stay, and the immigration officer at Heathrow repeated it like a question. " Six weeks?" stressing the first word. It probably wasn't a serious query since it wasn't pursued. But that it was asked at all hinted at some of the confusion that again surrounds a country that cannot but recall Dean Acheson's jibe about Britain losing an empire without finding a role. Ambivalence over the European Union echoes the even more tired "Channel frozen, Continent isolated" joke from one ice-bound British winter.

Both cracks probably do injustice to a nation that gave Magna Carta to the world. They seem especially misplaced at a time when VIP comings and goings perpetuate the impression of global consequence. Only the other day David Cameron was dragging out every red carpet he could beg, borrow or buy to woo Xi Jinping. Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, flew into London on Wednesday night protesting against Cameron's reaction to the Sharm al-Sheikh crash. Apart from being acclaimed by the world's biggest community of expatriate Indians, Narendra Modi might be asked some awkward questions next week about the loss of hundreds of British jobs because of closures at the Tata and Caparo steel works. Cameron has even telephoned Vladimir Putin to discuss his theory of a bomb in the fatal flight from Sharm al-Sheikh, a theory that Putin, like al-Sisi, pooh-poohed.

All this only temporarily distracts attention from what has been called the "world's longest and least promising striptease", meaning the Cameron government's posturing over continued EU membership. Dreams of a new Carolingian empire were smothered long ago in British queasiness with the red tape and paperwork of the Brussels bureaucracy. It seems another era in which Winston Churchill hailed nascent European unity as "a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom... a kind of United States of Europe". The self-confidence that inspired that vision is no longer evident. Britain was not among the pioneers of the first federal organization, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. It was not one of the six founding fathers of the European Economic Community six years later.

Although Edward Heath took Britain into the EEC in 1973 (over the objections of Labour veterans like Michael Foot and Tony Benn) and more than 1.5 million Britons have made their homes on the Continent, by virtue of its currency and attitude to foreigners, Britain is a distinctly different country. Those differences are looming larger and larger as the greatness of Britain recedes. Now, the impression created is that the Cameron government secretly wants to leave the EU but would prefer to be forced to do so. Singapore's exit from Malaysia in 1965 is the closest parallel I can think of.

A London newspaper columnist's explanation for this ambivalence does little credit to the prime minister or his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Both want to remain in the EU, he says. Both talk of renegotiating the terms of membership. But neither dare spell out what they really want lest refusal cost them face and the promised referendum on continued membership. The analyst's explanation is that they will therefore wait for the minimum Brussels is prepared to offer and then claim that was all they ever wanted.

Osborne's performance this week in Berlin was a masterpiece of prevarication. He claimed his aim is to keep Britain in "a reformed EU" while Cameron purged the British parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe of three known Eurosceptics. But what reforms? Many ideas are floating around but not any authoritative British proposal. Osborne indicated that only a new treaty would keep Britain in the EU but, again, its terms were not disclosed. As things stand, therefore, Britons will vote - if and when a referendum is held - on remaining in the EU without knowing what conditions the government considers vital to continued membership.

Even without specific knowledge, several factors may have a bearing on their choice while government spokesmen continue to blow hot and cold. Nigel Farage, the United Kingdom Independence Party leader, who wants Britain out, stresses that if Norway can enjoy a partial relationship with the EU, Britain should be able to obtain much better terms. Others draw parallels with island members like Ireland, Malta and Cyprus which also have special requirements. Some hopes were dashed when Michael Froman, the American trade representative, announced that if Britain left the EU it would be subject to the same tariff regulations and export quotas as Brazil, China or India. The warning couldn't be ignored since the United States of America is Britain's biggest export market - worth more than $54 billion - after the EU.

The long and tortuous history of Britain's negotiations with the EU touches on a sensitive spot in the British psyche - the fear that what was described as long ago as 1988 as "a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels" would impinge on Britain's sovereignty. No nation that has ruled so much of the world (perhaps precisely because it has ruled so much of the world) could be so nervous of losing one iota of its independent authority. So, while Angela Merkel warned in Berlin of the danger of a new Balkans war if the challenge of the West Asian exodus is not met, Osborne's principal concerns (echoing his boss) were that Britain should not join any new treaty to protect the euro, it should not be dragged into rescuing Greece from any financial crisis, and there would be no "backdoor entry" into Britain for the migrants who are clustered in Calais or have taken refuge on the British military base on Cyprus, or the millions on the march through Turkey and Greece to Western Europe. There is both alarm and resentment that Merkel's promise to expedite Turkey's EU entry might add 75 million impoverished Turks to the present continuous flow that Cameron flatly refuses to accept, a refusal that some churches and social organizations condemn as a "disgrace" and "shame".

Underlying all this is Britain's mounting horror of the Treaty of Rome's commitment to "ever closer union". No other European country takes such pains to stress its individuality. Landing in Athens once, I had a moment of panic because my host's complicated Greek address was locked up in my laptop. It wasn't necessary. Since then, I have felt faintly deprived because after the initial entry stamp, my passport hasn't been looked at again. The 26 Schengen countries operate as one. And even the country of entry doesn't any longer call for the archaic bureaucratic ritual of a landing card which is often the prelude to interrogation. Unlike the British, Schengen governments have faith in the issuing authority no matter where it is located.

That could explain the landing card. But the immigration officer's choice of question? She could have asked if I intended to spend six weeks in the club in London's St James's, which I had put down as my address. She might have wondered about the three weeks already spent in the Schengen zone before flying to Britain. She could have asked any number of questions. It was only the length of my stay in Britain that interested her. I mentioned this to a British friend who had an immediate explanation when I added the immigration officer was ethnic South Asian. "That's why!" he exclaimed. "People in her world don't go off and spend six weeks in another country." Possibly not. In that case, the socio-political ambience of a shrinking Britain encourages individual insularity.