EU Enlargement: a Very British Welcome 0

The new members should party as hard as they like, on 1st May, but if the British don’t turn up at the Malta fireworks with a bottle of Moet in hand, don’t think us spiteful – it is just that the party is further for us to travel to and we’d rather have a nice cup of tea and a good night’s sleep.

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In a 1938 radio broadcast British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain remarked that it was “horrible, fantastic, incredible” that Britain was preparing for war as a consequence of German ambitions to acquire part of Czechoslovakia – “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. Today my fellow Britons will tell you that they do indeed know more about the Czech Republic; its capital is Prague, which is a pretty town with cheap beer, making it the ideal getaway for students and pre-wedding parties. Unfortunately, if you are looking for more insight into contemporary Czech politics, or Slovak, or any of the other eight states preparing to join the European Union on 1st May, you are likely to be disappointed. It must seem curious to the citizens of these new member states that a momentous occasion for them, their full integration into that self-selecting elite club of EU members, barely raises an eye-brow of interest on the other side of the English Channel. I could outline my personal view of the challenges and opportunities presented by EU enlargement, but this would give the reader no more than a single perspective. Better then, I think, to explain the collective reaction of British society.

“Not opposed” to enlargement

The British are not opposed to EU enlargement. Indeed, enlargement is just about the only European venture that attracts positive levels of support amongst the British people. Britain’s three main political parties are all supportive and Eurobarometer’s 2002 National Report on the United Kingdom found that the broad statement of “benefits from enlargement would outweigh disadvantages” was supported by 35% of respondents, versus 30% who disagreed[1]. Politicians in the UK have long-stressed the economic gains from EU membership in terms of access to the single market, and the surveyed respondents that favoured enlargement cited this as a major factor in their reasoning. Added to this, Eurobarometer surveys across the years have consistently shown that the maintenance of peace and security in Europe is seen by UK respondents to be the EU’s “most effective area of action”. The mutual economic benefit offered to the UK and the new member states, plus the spread of democratic peace and values (a founding principle of what is today’s European Union) create a logical case in the British mind for European expansion.

Nonetheless, there is one issue relating to European enlargement that does attract negative media coverage and public concern within the UK: immigration. Earlier this year the British government, under pressure from the Conservative opposition and tabloid newspapers, announced that it had decided to heavily restrict benefits to jobseekers from the enlarged EU[2]. This was a reversal of Britain’s ‘open-door’ of allowing the free movement of labour - on terms applied equally to all current EU member states - to which it committed itself two years ago. It was also a clear nod to growing public fears about a potential influx of citizens seeking employment in Britain.

However, viewed from another perspective, the British attitude to this issue may be seen as more accepting than most other EU member states. From the start, most countries have intended to place greater restrictions on the movement of the EU’s new citizens than those recently announced by Britain. Germany, Italy and Austria, for example, have made clear their intentions to ban migrants from the ten new EU states until 2011. Britain remains wary then, but not unwelcoming.

Moreover, if the domestic media were to pay a little more attention to Home Office statistics showing that legal immigrants currently comprise 8% of the UK’s population, but generate 10% of its gross domestic product, or highlighted the University of Kent’s data which show a dramatic decline in the number of central and eastern European immigrants moving to the European Union during the 1990s, the British public might be inclined to revise its attitude and welcome the re-opening of the door that Tony Blair has just slammed shut. Alas, it is not to be - more press coverage of EU stories would mean less on celebrity gossip and football news, and what self-respecting Brit would want that?

Strikingly indifferent to European affairs, as a whole

Yet we British are marked out from our continental neighbours by neither an enthusiasm, nor distaste for EU enlargement, but rather by a striking level of indifference to European affairs, as a whole. In 2002, an average of 21% of EU citizens felt “not at all attached to the EU” – the UK figure, at 35%, was the highest in the Union. Further, only 17% of British citizens in Eurobarometer’s 2003 survey said that they would be very sorry if the European Union were to be scrapped, compared to the EU-wide average of 37%. The figures on enlargement fit this pattern. Whilst 35% of those polled may believe that the advantages of enlargement will outweigh the disadvantages, the same number was “unsure”. Further, 76% admitted that they had neither read nor been told anything about enlargement. The figures suggest that young people in Britain are more European in outlook, but as a whole Britain remains Eurosceptical.

British ignorance of the issues surrounding enlargement is not malicious, nor necessarily xenophobic; but it is ignorance. It comes from a proud tradition of an island in splendid isolation, whose people have always viewed themselves as being in Europe, but not of Europe. The British see a pragmatic case for EU enlargement and we are happy for the accession states to take advantage of the peace and prosperity that membership may bring to them - and us. So the new members should party as hard as they like, on 1st May, but if the British don’t turn up at the Malta fireworks with a bottle of Moet in hand, don’t think us spiteful – it is just that the party is further for us to travel to and we’d rather have a nice cup of tea and a good night’s sleep.


[2] Workers will have to register and will be able to claim benefits like Jobseeker's Allowance and income support only if they have worked continuously in the UK for at least a year.

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