On the evening of 23 June 2016, having knocked on doors all day, I sensed with considerable despondency that the referendum would produce a ‘leave’ majority, and so it proved to be. But I had long sensed that something was wrong about the UK’s relationship with the EU – indeed, on closer examination the referendum – both the decision to hold one and the result – seemed as much symptomatic of that malaise as they were causal. I decided to take a longer-term view of what had happened, concentrating less on personalities and more on underlying trends. The resulting set of analyses, set out in Slipping Loose: The UK’s long drift away from the European Union*, demonstrates graphically how deep-seated the malaise was. The 23 June 2016 decision was not the result of one isolated political mistake but was, rather, the culmination of a series of processes and trends.

The problem, in some considerable part, is that the UK has never been able to achieve a national consensus about its relationship with the European integration process (an inability that won’t, by-the-way, be solved by leaving the EU), let alone a national strategy based on that consensus. Various reasons for that inability have been adduced: the UK’s post-imperial decline and its distraction when the foundations of the European Economic Community were being laid in the 1950s; the absence of a ‘written’ UK constitution, on the one hand, and the strong constitutional principle of the primacy of parliament, on the other; and the UK’s distinctive model of competing governments and oppositions, produced by its particular ‘First-Past-the Post’ electoral system. In addition to these, commentators frequently point to the constant, long-term ‘drip-drip’ of a basically Eurosceptical press. There is, though, I would argue, a more deep-seated reason. This is a particularly British preference for fixed end states and an atavistic aversion to evolutionary processes.

Perhaps matters would have been different if the UK had kept its observer status at the Messina Conference in 1955 and if the UK had subsequently chosen to lead the process that led to the establishment of the EEC two years later. But it didn’t and, in so doing, did not only remove itself from the initial design work but also enabled the French-inspired vision of an evolutionary process, with deadlines, milestones and progress reports, to be established. Within five years, the subsequent prospect of the UK, with its sterling zone, entering the EEC, together with French misgivings about the dollar-dominated Bretton Woods settlement, had led to the creation of an additional vision and accompanying evolutionary process – that of economic and monetary union. Indeed, by 1964, all the institutional architecture that would later serve during the first phase of the EMU process as set out by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty – including the Committee of Central Bank Governors – had already been established. Both Harold Wilson, in 1969, and Edward Heath, in 1970, happily signed the UK up to this process, even before the UK had joined the EEC. James Callaghan (1978) and Margaret Thatcher (repeatedly) also committed themselves to the process, even as an embryonic monetary system was coalescing into something more fundamental and enduring. That they did so was because, in believing that it would never happen, they consistently underestimated the strength of Franco-German commitment to the underlying vision. And since EMU was not a vision that any UK government could realistically lead, the result was that the UK was condemned always to be the Union’s reactionary; constantly trying to head things off or slow them down. Long before David Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg speech, these chickens had come home to roost. In 2008 already, the members of the eurozone represented a qualified majority within the EU’s internal market. In 2010, David Cameron’s coalition government was the first to declare openly that sterling would never join the single currency, thus begging the question of what sort of relationship there could be between a permanent ‘out’ and the growing eurozone – and also what sort of internal market guarantees there could be for such an important service-based economy.

Slipping Loose shows how, even in areas where the UK seemed to be taking the lead and exercising positive leadership – the internal market, enlargement, the environment – there was no consistent underlying vision and consequently no enduring strategy. At times the record reads like an exemplary study in how not to do things. From the outset, for example, UK governments did not take the issue of staffing in the EU institutions seriously. Except for a few half-hearted catch-up exercises, the result was consistent under-representation in key strategic policy areas and, by 2010, alarmingly low staffing levels that, had the 2016 result gone the other way, would surely have required some sort of structural solution. To give another example, British domestic political parties’ consistently inward-looking stance meant that they did not see the Spitzenkandidaten bus (another pesky European vision) looming in the 2014 European elections and were subsequently obliged to engage in embarrassing contortions to avoid any risk of perceived complicity in the eyes of their domestic electorates.

Slipping Loose ends with a telling 2015 quotation from Sir Roderic Braithwaite, former Head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s European Integration Department and former Head of Chancery at the UK’s Permanent Representation in Brussels; ‘…there is no sensible strategy that can be written for a country like this in an organisation like that. I mean, we are always being told that we should change and adapt, but we can’t, you know, we’re British, aren’t we? We don’t do that.’

Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, Bruges; Visiting Professor in Practice, European Institute, London School of Economics