Truly, Britain is not just a bad European, but a very annoying one. David Cameron half-admitted as much in his speech in Davos Wednesday, when he quipped, “frustrated as [our European partners] no doubt are by Britain’s attitude.”
The U.K. joined the European Union late, spending more than a decade after the end of the World War II arrogantly believing that Europe was too small for it. When it did join under a Conservative government, the next Labour government under Harold Wilson demanded a renegotiation and a referendum on membership – which produced a fairly convincing yes.
Another Conservative government was elected in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher. It brought endless conflict with Brussels. Thatcher lost her leadership, partly because of a battle within the Conservative Party over Europe. Her successor, John Major, took the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – then abruptly left it in 1992. Labour came back in 1997 with a European Union enthusiast, Tony Blair, as leader – but wouldn’t adopt the euro. These days, the Tories are back and are deeply skeptical. This week their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, took a leaf out of Wilson’s book, demanding a renegotiation and then a referendum on membership.
If European leaders are only “frustrated,” as Cameron suggested, they’d be using a polite word.
At root, beneath the debates, there is a political-philosophical divide. The founding members – France, Germany and Italy, with the smaller states of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – accepted, at least in theory, that once the Union was created, their states’ power would wither and the new state’s power would grow. This was not how most British politicians saw it. They saw instead a market mechanism and a union of convenience, not the creation of a new state power. Yet at least to some extent, that’s what has happened: The EU does exercise substantial power. And the power is the problem.