London vs. Brussels. What are the right questions?

April 02, 2012, 10:29 AM GMT+0

The results of the latest poll run by YouGov in seven European countries (UK, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Denmark) returned a rather bleak outlook on the future of the British relationship with Europe, with 60% of Britons favouring looser relations with Europe or a full withdrawal.

The rise of euro-scepticism is not limited to the UK. The latest Eurobarometer survey confirms that ten years after the introduction of the common currency, support for the economic union and the Euro in the 27 states remains strong, but is in continuing deterioration (See graph here). As of November 2011, 53% of Europeans (27 states) support the economic union, while 40% oppose it. In the Euro area, the support for the Euro reaches 64% with only 29% against.

According to the last YouGov poll, about two thirds of UK voters oppose “European control” in almost all policy areas, and the figure rises even higher on immigration, financial regulation, crime and justice (85%) and taxation (89%). Some commentators and the media have predictably jumped at the headline, but they might have missed a crucial point: framing matters a great deal. In another poll, run just two weeks before, YouGov asked similar questions framed in terms of European “cooperation” instead of “control”. It turned out that despite using the same panel, 45% of British people want “stronger cooperation” on immigration (35% against), 41% on trade (26% against), 42% on the rise of Asia (17% against). On one of the most sensitive issues, crime and justice, 85% of Britons radically oppose any “EU control” and only 8% are in favour. Yet, when the same question is framed in terms of “cooperation” the picture is far less clear; 40% remain opposed to any stronger cooperation while about 30% would support it.

As is often the case, opinion polls provide good indications about attitudes but need to be weighted carefully when drawing a policy agenda. If we step back from the numbers, a fundamental difference emerges in the way that the EU debate is framed in the UK compared with the rest of Europe. The British public’s opinion, and indeed the political establishment, seem to look at politics as a zero-sum-game where power can be transferred either upwards (Brussels) or devolved downwards (Scotland), but can never be “shared”.

The result is the deep-seated Eurosceptic assumption that sovereignty pooled is sovereignty lost: if a mysterious and alien entity known as ‘Brussels’ acquires new competences, the EU member states have somehow been “denuded”. Such scepticism trickles down from the establishment to public opinion. For example, about 51% of UK voters would support an EU-wide tax on bank profits (74% of the French, 67% of German and 72% of Italians are in favour), 41% of Britons would support “the enforcement of common tax spending among EU countries, with strict penalties for countries which run too much debt” (59% of French, 64% of Germans and 56% of Italians are in favour). However, when asked about giving EU authorities which deal with financial regulation more power, the UK, alone, would oppose the move. External control over what is regarded as a domestic prerogative again seems the controversial point.

The debate in Britain is all about transferring “control” to or from Brussels, rather than about “cooperation” or “solidarity”. For European (continental) politicians schooled in federalist or regionalist countries, however, the EU is often just another institution in which to share decision making processes, if not the most popular one at present times. The great majority of national parliaments are elected by some kind of proportional representation which encourages “power sharing” and coalition governments.

Are Britain and the EU bound to head in opposite directions? Many in the UK would welcome such a parting and would point to the Anglo-Saxon model’s uniqueness and the safeguard of “parliamentary sovereignty”. This, however, need not be the case. The United Kingdom itself is founded on multiple national identities and exists by virtue of a constitutional contract between two previously independent states. Elected – and unelected – bodies have shared sovereignty in Westminster for long centuries. The European Union was established by states committed to collective decision-making, collective responsibility and integration. No political capitulation is in order. Many may not like this prospect, but this is what the EU is all about