The crisis afflicting the European Union for the last couple of years was predictable, as was the attempt to keep the union intact at literally any cost. But to Britons who consider ourselves paleo-Euroskeptics, it was also largely irrelevant. As British Labour Party grandee Tony Benn observes, in a democracy one cannot give away powers that are on loan. “Even if I agree with everything that is proposed” by the EU, Benn told the British parliament in 1991, “I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield…It would be theft of public rights.” Benn’s uncompromising standpoint is a lonely one.
Or at least it has been until now. Today the tide appears to be turning in favor of British withdrawal. A YouGov poll conducted in October of this year showed that 65 percent of Britons were “pessimistic” about the EU’s future, with just 22 percent feeling “optimistic.” More importantly, 49 percent of respondents told YouGov that they would vote for Britain to leave the whole mess were they given the choice in a referendum. Only 28 percent of those surveyed said they’d vote to stay in.
Such opposition is not wholly new, but it has never really meant much before now. This is in part because a European referendum has heretofore been the Bigfoot of British politics, and also because the game has effectively been rigged to crush popular opposition in its crib.
The EU will simply not take “Non” for an answer. Each time the people of a member state have voted to stall the march—as voters in Ireland and France did when asked to ratify the Lisbon treaty—Brussels’ sinister advocates have popped up like the anthropomorphic paperclip in Microsoft Word and asked, “Hi there, I see you’re trying to prevent the creation of a European federal state. Did you really mean to do that?” And they don’t go away until they’ve got the answer they wanted all along.
But if the respondents to YouGov’s poll are serious, it behooves Britain’s political parties to take note. British public opinion has long been mildly Euroskeptic, although the EU has often been less of a concern to the general public than the Conservative party has assumed. Now, it seems, it is both a touch more pressing. Moreover, Euroskepticism is more evenly spread across the ideological spectrum. The Conservatives retain their broad hostility, and the recent growth in popularity of the United Kingdom Independence Party will ensure that maintaining a firm stance is an electoral necessity. Labour, meanwhile, is retreating from the heady heights of Blairite Europhilia and becoming a party that is quietly split on the question. The leaves the Liberal Democrats and—quite incredibly, given their rhetoric about independence and sovereignty—the Scottish National Party to form the solidly pro-EU bloc.
The Labour Party may even need to put a promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU into their next election manifesto if it wishes to compete with the Conservatives on the issue. There is a competitive advantage to be had for whichever party picks up the sword with the most vigor. Private conversations I have had with strategists in both parties indicate that they know this to be true. If both major parties offer voters the clear chance to get out—and the wording of the referendum question will be crucial here—they will take it.
This seems unlikely to change any time soon. The crises that Europe’s Cassandras warned were inevitable are now broadcast in high definition on the nightly news. The soft promises made famous by former Conservative officials Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine and reiterated ad nauseam by Tony Blair—that the EU was a necessary guarantee of peace and harmony for a continent that ripped itself and the world into pieces twice in the twentieth century—now look as demonstrably silly as they were theoretically fatuous.
An old British joke, until now told behind closed doors and far away from the joyless ears of the politically correct, is that Germany, having failed twice to take over Europe by force, has found a peaceful way to do it via Brussels. This jab, once the preserve of Britain’s dark humorists, is now openly repeated across Europe—especially (and without levity) in the countries that have collapsed into indentured servitude. It is a supreme irony that this quip should gain single currency at the very moment that German popular enthusiasm for the European project is in retreat, her people starting to balk at the expectation that they will act as guarantor for Europe’s many enfants terribles. But there it is—comic timing is a mystery.
October brought the unthinkable sight of German expatriate and British Labour MP, Gisela Stuart, telling the BBC that Britain should leave the EU. “Something,” she said, “will give over the next few years, and we had better start thinking about it.” Her advice to her country of birth was to stop “throwing good money after bad”; to her adopted country she recommended simply, “leave.”
Life is often a battle between ideas and the reality with which they grapple. For more than half a century now, the European Union and its attendant institutions have devoutly hoped that their Kumbaya conceits could trump the very serious structural flaws at the heart of the European project. But such things have a tipping point, and now flowery language and circles of gilded stars cannot hide the reality of Europe from the rest of the world.
The British, ultimately, are a practical lot. For better or for worse, they have loaned their powers to Europe—and Europe has failed them. They must take them back.