By Arthur i. Cyr
“Fog in channel, Continent cut off,” is a very old British joke about an alleged newspaper headline regarding weather over the waterway separating them from Europe. Even a brief visit to the British Isles can readily confirm this sense of distance from the European continent.
On June 23, British voters will have the opportunity to express their collective opinion on whether or not to remain in the European Union. “Brexit” is the shorthand term for leaving. The referendum of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has been extremely controversial, even within his own Conservative Party.
However, the referendum does reflect the strong established currents within Britain of skepticism and outright opposition to European economic and political integration. Over the past year, Cameron has been pursuing a substantial renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership. Britain’s demands include restrictions on immigrants from Europe, a move strongly opposed by other member nations, led by Germany. In December 2011, Cameron dramatically vetoed a proposed solution to the EU financial crisis. The accord, constructed with great effort by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, would have imposed fiscal limits on all member nations. In recent years the Conservative Party, which led British entry into the European community, has become notably more hostile to the organization. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a famous Euroskeptic, and battled ferociously — and generally successfully — for concessions from the other members. The 1997 general election brought into Parliament a younger generation of Conservative politicians who reflected her views. In 2005, Britain also led the way in vetoing a proposed comprehensive European Constitution. The risk of losing aid from Brussels encouraged politically astute Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision. Additionally, European backers of integration had grown more ambitious, alienating Britain and others with visions of expanding EU authority at the expense of national sovereignty. Britain stayed out when the original European community was founded in the mid-1950s. France, one of six founding members, nonetheless was committed to defense of national sovereignty, led by President Charles de Gaulle, the national hero of World War II. On two occasions in the 1960s, he vetoed Britain’s entry, greatly reinforcing the sense of the English Channel as a great gulf. British resistance to institutional engagement in Europe is deeply rooted historically, traceable at least to the 16th century. According to one story, King Henry VIII had a portrait of himself painted in which he held in one hand a pair of scales, labeled Austria and France.
In his other hand, he held a weight capable of tipping the balance in favor of one state or the other. This image is a useful symbol for British policies toward the continent in the centuries which have followed. Britain proved crucial in defeating Napoleon and then Hitler.