Evolving perceptions of EU Membership
Human perceptions, whether individual, or group perceptions, are constantly evolving. Changes are often so incremental that we may not be particularly aware of them for some time, although some changes can be very sudden. Both types of changes are particularly critical in relationships. Perceptions of the costs, in terms of loss of autonomy or independence, are set against the perceived benefits which result from co-operation. If we begin to perceive costs as outweighing benefits, we may try to negotiate a change in the relationship in order to restore a balance. We also have perceptions with regard to the trustworthiness and competence of partners in relationships. If such perceptions become more negative, we may also attempt to negotiate change. Negotiations for change are sometimes successful, sometimes they fail over and over again, and sometimes a relationship is perceived to be beyond repair and is terminated. These patterns of evolving perceptions, attempts at negotiating change, and ultimate failure, are apparent in the relationship between the UK and Europe.
The UK joined the EEC, a free trade area, in early 1973, and 67% voted to remain in the EEC in the 1975 referendum. It is reasonable to assume, given this result, that those who voted to stay perceived the potential benefits of being in a free trade area as outweighing any possible loss of national autonomy. It is also reasonable to assume that those people had enough confidence in the trustworthiness, and competence, of the EEC to believe it was worth continuing the relationship. However, in the decades that followed, it gradually became apparent that Europe did not wish to remain simply as a free trade area, and that it was metamorphosing into something rather different. The perception began to emerge that Europe was incrementally taking more and more powers unto itself, and away from individual nation states, in a political project to gradually unite Europe under central control. This was, of course, precisely what the founders of the European Project had hoped for in the early decades after World War II. Furthermore, these political changes were increasingly being presented as essential requirements for a completely free market. Such changes almost certainly began to feed an emerging perception, in the minds of many people, that the future costs of lost autonomy might well outweigh the benefits of remaining in Europe. Margaret Thatcher’s constant “hand-bagging” of European institutions and officials, throughout the 1980’s, probably did something to ameliorate these perceptions, both within her party, and in the country. However, the reality was that Lord Cockfield, appointed as European Commissioner by Thatcher in 1984, moved very rapidly to work with the EU to complete the Single European Act, signed by the UK in 1986, which paved the way for much greater European integration in the Maastricht Treaty, signed by John Major in 1992. As the consequences of this became apparent in the UK, in the decades after Maastricht, there was a further erosion of trust, not just in the EU, but in the political elites within the UK. Any deterioration in perceptions of trust within a relationship is always very damaging if it is not resolved.
The Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) had been introduced in 1979, in order to reduce exchange rate variability. and create greater monetary stability, in preparation for economic and monetary union, with the introduction of the euro in 1999. The ERM, and the euro, therefore represented a significant move towards more centralised control of both the economy, and fiscal policy, throughout Europe. The UK joined the ERM in late 1990 but the consequences of doing so were to be disastrous: the UK is estimated to have spent over £6 billion trying to keep the pound within the narrow limits set by the ERM. John Major, despite warnings from his Chancellor of the Exchequer, and others, stubbornly resisted withdrawing from the ERM until September 1992, and the longer term costs of that delay were considerable, not least in a prolonged recession, and many thousands of citizens finding themselves with negative equity on their homes for years afterwards. It is difficult not to see this as a significant turning point in public confidence in the European project, and as something which further eroded trust of UK political elites. Whilst the ERM debacle is largely forgotten now, it not unreasonable to assume that the costs of that debacle, to many UK citizens, also began to resurrect their underlying concerns about the perceived costs and benefits of being a member of the EU, and it may well be one reason why so many people over the age of 65 voted to leave the EU in 2016, and why younger generations, who had not experienced that economic disaster, largely voted to remain.
The refusal of successive UK governments to join the euro probably did something, once again, to temporarily reduce the concerns of those who had lived through the ERM debacle, but concepts such as the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people, once again had within them the seeds of a further reduction of autonomy for individual nation states. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty had ceded yet more sovereignty to Europe, and the European Court of Justice, which had been established in 1952, was given the powers in the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty to settle legal issues which had previously been settled between member states.
It could be argued, therefore, that many of these developments in the EU, in the 1990’s, were sowing the seeds for an increasing perception that the costs of EU membership were indeed outweighing the benefits, and that agendas were in play which had been cleverly hidden for decades. By 2016, when the UK parliament voted to hold a referendum on continued EU membership, a major debt crisis in Europe, an overwhelming level of migration into Europe, (openly encouraged by Chancellor Merkel), and extremely high levels of youth unemployment, especially in parts of southern Europe, almost certainly fed a growing perception that the very competence of the EU was in serious doubt. David Cameron’s failure to persuade the EU to accept changes, particularly on the issue of free movement of people, prior to the 2016 referendum, appeared to be symptomatic of a relationship which was now beyond repair, since our desire to retrieve some of our autonomy seemed to be no longer negotiable, trust had been systematically eroded for decades by the apparent hidden agendas, and confidence in the EU, by the summer of 2016, had reached breaking point. Given these perceptions, playing out over more than four decades the vote to leave the EU was almost certainly rather more likely than many people had cared to consider.
An interesting question, given the closeness of the result in the 2016 referendum, is whether there would have been an overall vote to remain if the EU had shown itself more willing to compromise on issues such as the free movement of people, in David Cameron’s attempted negotiations prior to the referendum. Whilst we may never know the answer, it is defensible to argue that the vote to leave the EU was actually precipitated by the attitudes and competence of the EU itself, particularly in the final months before the referendum. Sir Vince Cable expressed the view in his Liberal Democrat Party speech on 11th March, 2018 that too many who voted for Brexit “were driven by nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” and that by voting the way they did those people destroyed “the hopes and aspirations of the young for years to come”. What Cable seems unable to understand is that any relationship can reach a point where the erosion of trust and confidence has become so serious that the potential costs of ending the relationship are considered to be a price worth paying. On this view the Brexit result was neither nostalgic or reckless. It was inevitable.