The EU-UK clash – political culture

The current dispute between the EU and the UK over the practical application of the Northern Ireland Protocol section of the EU Withdrawal Agreement has the potential to ignite or re-ignite sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and also to cause a major trade and logistics dispute between the UK and the EU.

From a practical perspective, sectarian violence is a lose: lose for everybody, and if there is a trade dispute between the EU and the UK, there will be significant negative impacts in the UK, which is not self-sufficient in most basic supplies for a highly populated post-industrial society. A trade war, if it occurs, will not end well for the UK. it will impact the EU also, but given the disparity in GDP size, and the reality that many trade routes into and out of the UK are via the EU, the effects will be disproportionately felt in the UK.

The history of the relationship between the EU and the UK is one of initial reluctance by the EU (or the EEC as it was then) to let the UK even join in the first place. President De Gaulle famously vetoed the first UK attempt to join in the late 1960s, and in turn, there was significant resistance in the UK when it finally agreed to join in the early 1970s. The resistance to EU membership never went away, it simply went underground in the two major political parties, waiting for an opportunity to re-emerge, which happened in 2015. Both parties were crippled in their approaches to campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU as a result.

The UK’s relationship inside the EU were always contentious. Margaret Thatcher certainly pissed off the EU leaders multiple times during her largely successful attempt to negotiate a better financial deal in the 1980s. However, the Single Market in its current form was a concept that she supported and lobbied for, since at the time that the UK joined the EU, it did not exist in the form in which it exists today. So the UK, while it was an EU member, had very significant strategic influence on the evolution of the EU.

However, the EU has always tended to see the UK as a reluctant member, and strategic UK actions since the 1980s, such as the refusal to join the Euro, and the attempt by David Cameron to head off a negative result in the 2016 referendum by once again re-negotiating the terms of UK membership, have reinforced that feeling. The UK’s sense of imperial exceptionalism has not helped its relationships while in the EU, and the current post-Brexit mess is merely a continuation of a fractious relationship.

BTW, I regard the Euro as a qualified failure; while it certainly added to trading convenience, it deprives a country in the Euro of a valuable economic lever for crisis management, namely the ability to devalue its currency. That caused major problems when Greece lurched into insolvency and could not devalue its debts by devaluing its currency; it no longer had an independent currency to devalue. The UK was right to not join the Euro.

The bigger question is why the relationship has always been fractious.

In my opinion, a major cause of the problem is that the political cultures in the UK and Europe are, in most cases, fundamentally different. Most European countries have electoral systems based on forms of proportional representation. They also have much more fluid political systems, with more than 2 major political parties, and with rapid evolution (and disappearance) of political movements. As a result, government by coalitions is the norm, rather than the exception. The EU reflects that, in that it is an unwieldy coalition of 27 countries, which for major decisions, requires unanimity.

The UK has no significant history of coalition governments. Apart from wartime, when party politics was essentially suspended, the only UK coalition of any length was the recent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the LibDems very much as the junior partner.

The two major political parties in the UK have always been publicly hostile to proportional representation, claiming that a “first past the post” system is needed for what they term “strong government”. Cynically, they would say that, since a government with a majority in the House of Commons in the UK can essentially do what it likes. They do not have to take any notice of any other interest group or political party. It is not realistic to expect either of the two major parties to support the change of a system that has given them a comfortable duopoly for centuries.

People who are hostile to PR like to justify that hostility by mocking Belgium, which has had perpetually unstable coalition governments for decades. It once went nearly a year without any government at all. However, Belgium is not a credible example of the problems of PR. It is a manufactured country, formed by merging Wallonia, Flanders and part of North West Germany to act as a buffer state between France and Prussia. The reason for the instability is that the coalitions reflect linguistic community dynamics, and there is lingering distrust between the French and Flemish speaking communities. In an ideal world, Belgium would be unwound, but nation-states tend to be regarded as inviolate. (If the world was pragmatic, Kurdistan would be re-created also. But I digress).

The UK electorate had the chance to change from “first past the post” to a form of PR in 2011, but unfortunately chose to vote No. Since both major political parties were against PR, I was not surprised by the result. However, it has locked the current system in place for the foreseeable future.

The lack of proportional representation and coalition politics in the UK had persistent negative consequences when the UK tried to work within the EU. The decision-making processes in the EU are entirely coalition-based, and significant ones require unanimity. This does not sit well with the governing mindset in the UK of “we’re in charge”. As a result, the UK regarded the EU decision making processes as hopelessly cumbersome and too deferential to smaller countries, while the EU regarded the UK approach as insensitive and dictatorial. It’s two different mindsets of how to govern.

As you might expect from a supra-national grouping founded on consensus, the EU’s political leaders are almost all from countries with a strong tradition of PR, so they are experts at satisfying multiple divergent interest groups and building unanimity for proposals and laws. The UK’s politicians have little to no background in that style of politics, and more seriously, they never really showed any interest in learning how to operate that way. As a result, the relationship was marked by the bureaucrats working well together behind the scenes, with periodic public spats as the UK complained about something or other, and the EU leaders counted to a large number and said under their breath “here we go again”.

The resulting friction was always a part of the EU-UK relationship, and it still continues to this day, with the UK thumping the table after Brexit and demanding concessions from the EU. This is not a style of interaction that would have worked well while the UK was in the EU, and it is even less likely to work now that the UK has left.

The difference in political cultures has implications for any future relationship, up to and including the UK rejoining the EU, which will probably not happen in my lifetime. I consider it unlikely that the UK will even be considered for closer relationships unless there is a profound change in the current UK political culture. Whilst PR is not a requirement for EU membership, the current “winner takes all” mindset of UK politics is not a good match for the EU culture. Until the UK’s political culture becomes a lot more collaborative, I see no real prospect of any significant long-term improvement in EU-UK relations.

Right now, with a deeply authoritarian UK government in place, the two parties are about as far apart as you could imagine. Hence my skepticism that the current arguments over the Northern Ireland protocol will be resolved without further escalations.

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