The most basic classroom lesson on the European Union in Britain usually begins as such: following two World Wars, France wanted to contain Germany’s military power. In the name of creating solidarity between the two countries, France tied Germany’s economy to its own by establishing the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. With Germany’s market incorporated with France, it would make little economic sense for Germany to wage war against France or any of its other European neighbours again.
With this account of history in mind, it is easy to make the case that the EU was founded for peace. Beginning humbly as an economic union between six countries, the EU has grown formidably in size and power. Through a combination of neo-functionalist spillover and intergovernmental pooling of powers, the EU has also become a polity. What is often overlooked, however, are the people. After all, there could not be any economic or political union of nations without citizens. While the so-called Brussels bubble of technocrats and bureaucrats may find themselves too far removed to remember this, Europe is nothing without its people. With 28 member states, a common currency, freedom of movement, and shared and treasured cultural values, the European Union has become a social union as well.
Recognising Europe’s demos would be a compelling way to bring the people of Europe together. The creation of an ever closer union has remained a goal for the European Union and is continually noted in EU treaties: however, its message has become a divisive topic in the twenty-first century. Leaders like David Cameron have shied away from it, fearing that the EU may become a supranational or federal state, which would grab sovereignty from its current 28 members, despite opt-out options having been offered. One way to satisfy such fears would, of course, be to cut and run, such as is seen in Brexit; another way, however, would be to recognize the power of the demos by bringing the people closer to the European Union and encouraging them to engage with it, creating a way in which they may see for themselves the many benefits that come with membership. The best way to do this would be through further encouragement of a European identity.
But what about Britain? As the Prime Minister prepares to trigger Article 50 in the next month, it is, perhaps, too late. Yougov reports that currently 46% of the British public believe that it was correct to leave the EU, while 42% disagree (17 Feb 2017). Interestingly, the majority of the public still shares a sense of belonging to the EU. Eurobarometer data show that the number of those who feel little or no citizenship of the EU have fallen both after David Cameron announced the referendum (January 2013) and again after the referendum itself (June 2016). Similarly, both fairly and very positive perceptions of the EU rose following Cameron’s announcement and again after the referendum, while neutral, fairly negative, and very negative perceptions fell after both events.
Do you feel you are a citizen of the EU?
In general, does the European Union conjure up for you a very positive, fairly positive, neutral, fairly negative, or very negative image?
Eurobarometer: Accessed 24 February 2017
This suggests that, while public opinion respects the outcome of the referendum result, there is a deep-seated feeling of belonging and connection to Europe still in the UK. Remaining may no longer be an option on the table, but it would be wise for the government to recognise this sentiment and work hard to leave gently. A compromise in Brussels is far preferable than compromising one’s citizens. Such small fluctuations in opinions towards the EU over the last five years would suggest there will be relatively little change in the future—even if Britain is leaving the EU, EU identity will remain. But how can this be reconciled?
EU negotiations will, in whatever form they take, be a fascinating show of politics and diplomacy. Key actors must remember to reach out to their British audience as it unfolds and build a Britain in which European identity may still thrive, essential to maintaining peaceful, friendly relations between Britain and the rest of Europe.
Elisabeth Laird studies at the London School of Economics and is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.