Guest post by Simon Usherwood, University of Surrey. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).
One of the long-standing hallmarks of the UK’s relationship with the evolving system of European governance has been the persistence of treating this as something deeply external to British political life.
“Brussels” was foreign and strange, making us do things against our will; successive generations of British politicians would “go to Europe” to fight for our interests and to stop the eurocrats meddling in our affairs.
Such tropes were both cause and consequence of the way in which the EU was held at arm’s length, in marked contrast to the much closer embrace found in other member states.
All of which served to produce a strange characterisation of the European Union in British debate, both before and after the referendum: simultaneously strong and weak; both rational and irrational; supranational, yet driven by member states.
In one part of the debate, the EU steamrolls its way through any discussion, implacably pursuing its pre-determined goals without any thought or concern for those in the way. This is the Europe that drove Greece deep into austerity and crisis, while also bothering itself to deprive Brits of their prawn-cocktail-flavoured crisps.
Here the anonymous offices of drab Brussels streets hide anonymous officials, working remorselessly to achieve “ever closer union”, and innumerable politicians with pretensions to become president of it all.
But there is another face that been presented during the Brexit process. This is an EU that surely recognises when its self-interest is at play, which will drive it to agree to the UK’s terms for withdrawal, for fear of losing a major market and of alienating a major player in the world.
This face talks of German car makers shaping the debate, and of the need merely to drop a few words into the ear of the German chancellor for everything to be unlocked. And, pertinently for right now, this is the EU that always gives ground just before the deadline.
Of course, neither of these faces is particularly accurate or helpful, and they say much more about the lack of understanding (indeed, or interest) on the part of the British public and politicians.
And yet, they matter.
The contorted view that the UK holds of the EU has certainly contributed to the way it has approached Brexit. From the government’s repeated efforts to cherry-pick their way through the four freedoms of movement, to its failed endeavours to pick off individual member states in bilateral negotiations, to the current ratification impasse where MPs imagine that the EU’s firmly stated position that it will not reopen the Irish backstop is just a ploy: all of these speak to a failure, even in an extreme situation, to look beyond the tropes and try to understand what is there.
The irony of it all is that it will take the rest of the Brexit process to offer even a glimmer of change on this: whether revocation, extension, renegotiation or discussion of a future relationship, the UK will find that it has to develop more of an understanding of the EU if it is to have a hope of finding a settled situation.
And maybe in so doing, the UK might find more understanding of itself and the place it is trying to become.
Dr Simon Usherwood is Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme.