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Analysis
British exceptionalism and the EU

British exceptionalism and the EU

A clash of projects and details
Cameron’s irony: less dirigiste PM embarks on confrontation

by John Nugée, Advisory Board

Mon 4 Feb 2013

David Cameron’s speech on Europe reverberates not just in UK politics but also in the rest of the EU. In this context, though, it is important to note that he has not started the debate on the future shape of the Union: the British are far from alone in discussing the future direction of Europe. Many others share the UK’s concerns and have been debating them vigorously for some time. The UK does not have a monopoly of seeing the EU’s faults, nor is it a case that the other 26 members have a united view.

If, then, the UK is not alone in wanting to build a better and more democratic Europe, but others more typically seek to improve and advance Europe from within, then the British uniqueness is not in realising that there is something wrong with Europe. Rather it is in believing that the best, or perhaps only, way of mending this state of affairs lies in bilateral dealings, in discussions between the UK and the EU.
 
Why is this? Why does the UK believe in adversarial and confrontational discussions (‘us against them’) not collegiate discussions (‘us with them’, or even ‘us as part of the whole’)?
 
The traditional answer to this is to look to the UK’s history and geography. Britain has had no substantive possessions on the continent for hundreds of years and has been able therefore to build a mental image of ‘us and them’ which other nations do not share. The old saying ‘Fog in Channel, Continent cut off’ may or may not be apocryphal, but it is revealing of the islanders’ mindset.

The one substantial territorial change the UK has experienced in the last 300 years – the creation of the Republic of Ireland – has left a much greater identification with and understanding of that foreign state and its concerns, and a greater willingness to co-operate with its neighbour and seek common solutions to common issues (Northern Ireland being the most obvious example).

But there may be an alternative dynamic at work here. For most of the post-Second World War period, most of west and north Europe has enjoyed coalition governments and coalition politics. The art of compromise, of creating friendships and mutual obligations across a political divide is essential for any continental politician who wants to succeed. But in the UK, the norm has been majority governments. A British prime minister is used to getting his/her way, whether it be with cabinet, party or parliament. It breeds a different approach – decide and implement, not discuss and compromise.
 
Importantly, this ‘decide and implement’ approach requires careful thinking before adoption of a position. Because a British government has usually been a majority government, it has a good chance of implementing its policies, and British political thought has worked on the basis of details. Party manifestos at elections have traditionally been very granular. This gives the British political class a good grip of practicalities, but a correspondingly poor concept of ‘vision’: the UK prefers to work out the next steps exactly rather than contemplate the far horizon. The more common European approach of focusing on ‘le grand projet’, sometimes at the cost of letting the details sort themselves out as they happen, is the exact opposite to how the UK approaches things.
 
This creates a political class which is good at immediate problem-solving and poor at vision and long-term planning. It creates leaders who think deeply but too often in a vacuum, and having done so, convince themselves they are right and then simply do not know how to interact with people who do not agree. It has created a succession of British prime ministers who are used at home to dictating events. When they get to Brussels and have to negotiate, they founder, with neither diplomatic skills nor pre-arranged alliances.
 
The irony is that Cameron, despite the appearance of embarking on what looks like confrontation ‘à la mode britannique’, is in fact a different style of British PM. He leads a coalition. He can be flexible in his views. He is more pragmatic and less dirigiste than some of his predecessors. And he shares with almost all other EU leaders a desire for a successful, prosperous and democratic Europe. But it may have come too late for the UK’s relationship with its EU partners, many of whom are sadly exhausted and exasperated by ‘la question existentielle du Royaume-Uni’.

The next few years will show whether countries with such close yet diverse histories and geographies as Britain, France and Germany can coalesce in a common cause – or whether they will be ineluctably driven apart by what some may call ‘la force des choses’.

John Nugée is a senior managing director at State Street Global Advisors; the views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent those of SSgA.

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