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British European policy in recession
by Newropeans-Magazine
2008-10-08 08:04:19
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In those policy areas where the current British government has made an effort to engage openly and constructively with the EU, it has tended to rely on ideologies capable of outweighing popular eursoscepticism. Yet the sustainability of this tactic has become increasingly doubtful over the past few weeks: the Brown government increasingly finds itself at a stage where it must move from the ideological to the practical, yet the costs associated with realising its agenda have been thrown into sharp relief by the incipient economic crisis. The ideological props for its agenda in areas like climate change appear unsteady.


The 2007 pamphlet ‘Global Europe’ set out the goals of Gordon Brown’s and David Miliband’s European-policy approach. The paper stresses the need for a robust regional approach to global problems: the EU is to serve as a logical framework for the UK to deal with transnational terrorism, global poverty, global economic competition and similar problems. Yet, the government’s capacity to realise these goals today appears shaky, and not merely because of the instability of the Brown government.

As a core part of its ‘Global Europe’ agenda, the Labour government has for example vocally supported EU action against climate change. Admittedly, its deeds have not always matched its words—the British government has been recalcitrant as regards the issue of its energy mix, and has long tried to wriggle out of its European commitment to increase its use of renewable resources. All the same, its engagement has been comparatively open and positive. And, if this engagement has above all marked an effort by the government to capitalise upon the British public’s support for what has been termed “eco-ideology”, its agenda will likely falter as this support evaporates. 

Of course, the suggestion that the global-warming agenda is an ideological one is sure to raise hackles: it implies that concern about global warming is somehow unscientific and ungrounded. In fact, there is no such inference. It is merely to say that, with its entry into the political sphere, the question of global warming has become increasingly removed from the ongoing scientific debate. And, as an ideological agenda, efforts to combat global warming appear to be losing public support in Britain. 

The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the government’s efforts to move from ideological platitudes to concrete practicalities have splintered its support amongst civil society. While the climate-change agenda still existed purely on an ideological level, it was conducive to a whole range of NGOs’ priorities; today, by contrast, the government’s concrete actions against global warming have forced these NGOs to make compromises. The ongoing question whether a barrage should be built across the Severn River has highlighted these contradictory pressures: the barrage would generate electricity, boosting the place of renewables in the UK’s energy mix and marking a positive step towards meeting EU climate-change commitments; yet, it would also be associated with environmental damage to the area. The environmental lobby is split.

These dilemmas could not come at a worse time, because, secondly, the economic downturn has sharpened public awareness of the material costs entailed by the government’s global-warming ideology. The resulting shift in public attitudes has surprised politicians: surely an ideology encouraging households to be sparing with energy use should be convincing to a public concerned about their economic situation. Yet, it is precisely the ideological nature of the global-warming debate in the UK, and the way it has detached itself from objective realities, that explains this loss of popularity: with the emphasis on material concerns that an economic downturn brings, few people have time for ideologies which stress a degree of altruism and international solidarity. 

This is not the only case of ideological implosion. Take for example immigration policy. Over the past few years, the Labour government has taken surprisingly far-reaching action to open the country to economic immigration. This was in part occasioned by academic analysis of an impending ‘demographic crisis’, and gained support in the public sphere thank to an ideology that mixed market-liberalisation with anti-racism. 

This agenda has recently faltered. Firstly, with the government seeking to shift from ideology to practicality, its allies in the economy have been forced to compromise their interests. They have, for example, balked as Government-Commissions propose that businesses be made responsible for some of the social costs of immigration. Secondly, and more importantly, the economic downturn has led the British public to ask whether immigration, although positive for economic growth, has not had a negative effect on their job prospects and wages. 


The demise of the government’s ideological tactitioning in many key areas of European policy will be greeted with mixed emotions. Many pro-Europeans in Britain advocate honest, factual and non-ideological exposition of EU issues on the part of the government, apparently viewing this as a panacea for the lack of British support for European integration. If the public were better informed about the EU, the logic runs, they would be more supportive of it. Yet, this argument displays a disingenuous ignorance about the workings of the political process: In fact harnessing ‘dishonest’ ideological arguments may be the best way for the government to realise its EU policy goals in a half-way transparent manner. This does not infer that its goals would not be perfectly defensible in more grounded, objective debate. From this point of view, the crumbling of its ideological props will likely see the British government shy even further from open discussion of its role in the EU.

On the other hand, the collapse of its ideological agenda may have positive effects. The government’s ideologization of some issues has been allowed to stifle objective academic debate—not so much on the pros and cons of the EU, as on the problems the Union is supposed to be tackling. After all, there is a risk that ideologization will skew academic results and that self-censorship and political correctness on the part of academics will deny science the discussion that fuels it.

Take, for example, the academic debate on the ‘demographic deficit’. Before its entry into the political sphere, many analysts had serious doubts about the scientific assumptions underpinning it. An aging population had been assumed a negative phenomenon, leading as it would to a large inactive population dependent on a small young one. Yet, is that really the case, and how accurate were the predictions anyway? A number of counter-arguments have been made over the years.

It has been suggested that the “dependency ratios” between old and young predicted for the following half century have been skewed: Young people actually remain dependent on their elders far beyond the teenage years assumed by early analyses. Far from the old being dependent upon the young, the reverse is also true, and demographic change might actually alleviate this. One might equally pull the rug out from assumptions concerning the healthcare costs associated with an ageing population: the incidence of illness tends to rise the closer individuals come to death, rather than simply the older they get. An elderly population does not necessarily equate to a sick population. 

As the ideological agenda surrounding the demographic crisis breaks down, it has been suggested that many analysts previously held back from making such counterarguments for fear of being marked as racist or protectionist. Their counterarguments may well be Malthusian or backward, but they nevertheless need to be addressed. The same naturally goes for the scientific debate around global warming and the other issues on the UK’s European policy agenda. 


The UK enjoys a state of relative detachment from EU immigration-policy cooperation thanks to its opt-in/out arrangements. This means that the destabilisation of its immigration agenda is unlikely to have too many implications for European migration cooperation. Repercussions will probably be felt above all in the UK’s position on the “Lisbon Agenda” where alternative options for defusing the ‘demographic deficit’ are dealt with. In other policy areas, the effects of ideological implosion may be more profound. The UK’s EU partners need to be aware that the ideological pillars supporting much of Britain’s constructive engagement with the EU are looking shaky. This includes not only climate change but also global poverty and even aspects of market liberalisation—keystones of the government’s recent engagement in the EU. 

Perhaps counter-intuitively though, even Britain’s more pro-European allies may actually be relieved by this turn of events: the UK’s recent constructive engagement with the EU was looked upon by some as prone to excesses thanks to its ideological basis. Even if the collapse of its ideological props immobilises the British government somewhat, its EU-partners may welcome its return to its ‘natural’ blocking role. The UK’s negative contribution to the integration process is deemed rather less dangerous than its positive .

Roderick Parkes
Berlin - Germany

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