British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last week that if he is reelected, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum by 2017 about whether the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union. A recent poll suggests that if the vote was held today, the country would, by a small margin, be in favor of leaving the EU altogether. This article will not get bogged down attempting to trawl through the endless pros and cons of the UK’s EU membership, or evaluate whether David Cameron’s announcement was out of line, but rather explain why the British people are so much more anti-Europe than their fellow Europeans. It is of course natural, even expected, that citizens of any EU member nation have certain reservations about their nation committing to a project with as many problems as the EU, and indeed a 2010 European Commission survey determined that only 42% of Europeans firmly ‘trust’ the EU. But what is it about the British that make them more averse to their nation committing to the project than any other member by a country mile? Why is that, in the same survey, only 20% of Brits said they trusted the EU?
A German man once told me that when he used to work in London the windows in his office would make an annoying rattling sound whenever it got windy outside. He asked his English colleague why the window had never been fixed, to which he was told that fixing the fault would rid the office of its ‘charm’. Bewildered by this remarkable reasoning, the German noted that such a thing would never happen in Germany and that the window would be repaired immediately. This man had experienced first-hand the deep-rooted English sensibility for anything with a distinctive character.
And what better way for people to make charm part of their lives by considering their own country to be one of distinctive character? Many British EU-skeptics lament things like the organization’s dysfunctionality like skeptics in any other country would, but most of the reasons given by Brits stem from the fact that they are filled with horror at the prospect of a United States of Europe with a single culture stripped of the English character. One frequent criticism is the increased flow of migrants to Britain from all over Europe; indeed a recent Economist article claimed that ‘Britons have come to associate the EU with the uncontrolled immigration of Poles and other east Europeans.’ What better way to strip the character of the nation than to make it a melting pot of different nationalities. But it doesn’t stop there, because the EU not only homogenizes the people of its member countries by allowing them to cross borders more freely, but also homogenizes the laws of each of its member states, meaning that Britain shares an increasing number of laws with other countries every year. This fact does little to allay the fears of British citizens that their island is becoming less unique as a result of being a member of the EU.
And so the British are particularly anti-EU because they pride themselves on the uniqueness of their nation more than other countries do. Unfortunately, this might cost the nation dearly if a referendum does go ahead and the UK ends up leaving the EU. Because as charming as it is to have a unique country, being shut out of the EU could be an economic disaster for the United Kingdom, which relies on EU countries for more than half of its exports. Although exports are not the heartbeat of the UK economy, they are a key component of it; it is estimated, for example, that the UK would have fallen into recession far quicker had exports not grown in 2011. Presenting this fact is to merely scratch the surface of a complex economic debate about the UK’s membership in the European Union, but one thing is clear: widespread allergy to a European identity is not leaving Britain at any time soon.