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Britain misses the point of the EU

Don’t miss an excellent magazine piece this week by the BBC’s Allan Little on the significance of the European Union in eastern Europe. He revisits the old debate between “broadening” and “deepening”, and I think gets it absolutely right:

Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major believed that widening Europe would help prevent its deepening – help put a halt to what they saw as the growing power of Brussels, and the erosion of the sovereignty of nation states in Europe.

It has not turned out that way. …

The Poles and others did not believe that Brussels was remotely like Moscow; or that the European Commission was remotely comparable to the Soviet Politburo.

While he talks about the eastward shift in Europe’s centre of gravity, the real message is the difference between Britain’s perception of the EU’s role and that held almost universally on the continent. After speaking to Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, Little remarks that “He is a politician firmly on the centre-right and would be a comfortable fit in the British Conservative party on almost any issue – except on Europe.”

Not having had the experience of invasion and dictatorship, the British see the EU primarily as an economic contrivance. For those on the continent its function is much deeper and more important: “the belief that European integration has delivered the nations of the continent from their appalling histories is powerful and tenacious in Central Europe.”

Whether those different perceptions can ever be reconciled is a fascinating question. It does seem that many people are starting to see Britain’s EU membership more and more as an anomaly. A couple of weeks ago Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the New Republic wondered if the British mood had “profoundly shifted in a direction hostile to the whole ‘European idea’” and described the Tory backbench, not unfairly, as “seethingly Europhobic.”

Perhaps this is just Britain’s geographical destiny: never fully a part of Europe, but never able to detach itself either.

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