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On the Trail of British Eurosceptism

British pragmatism applied to European questions fascinates continental Europeans, who readily make references to British euroscepticism. Agnès Alexandre-Collier teaches at the University of Besançon and researches at the Centre d'Information des Données Socio-Politiques (CIDSP)1, where she seeks to understand British outlooks.

Ever since its delayed entry into the European Community, Great Britain has maintained its reputation, at least among its continental partners, as an insular bad boy. Its current refusal to belong to the euro, and its reluctance to act on any European initiatives, strengthens its Eurosceptical image. Is this a stereotype or a true portrait? In her recent work La Grande Bretagne eurosceptique2, Agnès Alexandre-Collier re-centers this question amidst the complexity of British relations with Europe since 1945.
What do the British think? Although it may come as a surprise to continental Europeans, the fact is that the British do not think of themselves as Eurosceptics. For them, this label applies specifically to conservative MPs who, at the beginning of the '90s, seceded from their own party in opposition to the ratification of the Treaty of Maastricht*. For the general public, the term Eurosceptic covers specifically this political minority and its followers more than the way the United Kingdom behaves in general as a member Nation of the Union. Nonetheless, outspoken opposition to a number of aspects of European integration has earned Great Britain the reputation of Eurosceptic.
The issue of European integration has occupied a fundamental place in British political debate since 1945 and has contributed to a thorough reorganisation of the political spectrum. The Conversative Party which, under Churchill, was pro-European joined the camp of the Eurosceptics under Margaret Thatcher. As for the Labour Party, which was anti-European in the 1970's, it has refocused its platform since 1997 to include a pro-European stance. That being said, is it really in the realm of politics that an observer is likely to find the reasons for British reluctance about the euro? For Alexandre-Collier, cold British feet over Europe go beyond political arguments and parties and reflect rather a generalised fear that European federalism will lead to the inauguration of a supranational power whose tendency would be to erode the sovereignty of their national parliament. British Euroscepticism is in this way of thinking a two-tiered affair, operating on both political and symbolic levels.


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Agnès Alexandre-Collier
CIDSP
E-mail: Alexandre.Collier@wanadoo.fr

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