Britain's policy on Europe

14 September 2007

Sir Stephen Wall, who served as UK Permanent Representative to the European Union, Head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office and EU Adviser to the Prime Minister during his long diplomatic career, said the debate over the UK’s membership of the EU had remained virtually unchanged since the 1970s and still centres on the advantages of EU membership compared with the price which has to be paid.

Europe in the Blair years

When the Labour Party took power in 1997, it argued that its approach to Europe was radically different from that of the previous Conservative government under John Major. In fact, however, there was little substantive difference between the two.

Nevertheless, Sir Stephen believed that Tony Blair had a “slightly greater willingness” to consider extending Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) and “a constant desire” to look for initiatives that Britain could take at the EU level. Having taken the decision that Britain would stay out of the euro, he wanted to demonstrate the other benefits that British membership of the EU could bring.

While Mr Blair had set out with the declared intention of changing the British public’s attitude towards Europe, after ten years in office, very little had in fact changed. On the plus side, however, he had taken a lead on some key issues, contributing significantly, for example, to the development of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The decision to stay out of the euro had not been surprising, given Labour’s desire to establish itself as a government that could “run the economy efficiently”, said Sir Stephen. In his second term, Mr Blair took a stronger pro-euro stand, but in the end, pro-European businessmen felt let down. There was a sense that they had been “marched up to the top of the hill (of Euro-entry), while Tony Blair then abseiled down the other side”, said Sir Stephen.

By the end of the Blair premiership, the decision not to join the euro, the problems over Iraq, and the differences of opinion between the Prime Minister and the then Chancellor Gordon Brown had taken “the wind out of the sails” of any plans to sell Europe to the British public.

Sir Stephen said Mr Blair was a strong believer in an intergovernmental Europe, and when he, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac had met to “mend fences” after the Iraq war, their discussion centred on a belief that an EU of 27 Member States was ungovernable and the direction had to be provided by the three largest governments. However, this trilateral approach failed to materialise because of difficult relations between the three and because of objections from other countries such as Spain and Italy.

Mr Blair, and the British people as a whole, see the EU as a mixture of intergovernmentalism, shared values and supranationalism in the form of strong institutions, said the former UK Representative. But many British feel they have been sold a “false bill of goods” and the only way to resolve this must be to tell the “persuasive truth” about the EU, explaining that supranational institutions are needed to manage the relationships between nation states.

Brown and Europe

Turning to whether Prime Minister Gordon Brown would make the argument in favour of Europe, Sir Stephen doubted that he would, given the challenge which lies ahead in getting a new EU treaty ratified - and his need to retain the support of a largely Eurosceptic British media in the run-up to a general election.

However, while he is not such a committed European as Mr Blair, he supports European policies on energy, climate change, trade and aid.

Two potentially difficult issues are agriculture and the forthcoming review of the EU budget. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has signalled that he is willing to have a genuine discussion on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but Mr Brown is unlikely to give ground on the British rebate.

In general, said Sir Stephen, Mr Brown takes a utilitarian view of Europe, supporting it as far as it helps the UK, so is likely to approach the budget discussions in the same way as Margaret Thatcher did and his negotiating style will be similar to hers.

Furthermore, the climate of opinion in Britain on Europe is unlikely to change, not least because Mr Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron have “pretty similar” views on Europe. Both evaluate Europe on the basis the UK’s interests in a globalised world and both see the benefits of EU-wide policies on the issues of climate change and energy resources.

Sir Stephen said the EU today is closer to the British view of Europe than is “healthy” for its own good. Unfortunately, British people appear incapable of seeing that former European Commission President Jacques Delors’ view of a federal Europe is no longer on the agenda. And while today’s EU may be a more comfortable place for the British, this does not necessarily mean it is better for Britain.