Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party have got the British political establishment feeling rattled, and with good reason. UKIP enjoyed an unprecedented surge in support in recent local elections because they tapped into a widespread feeling among British people that the EU is something that is done to them — and not done very well at that. They are right: the leaders of the ‘European Project’ have proved that they are prepared to play fast and loose with the means to achieve their end: “ever greater union.” There remain good reasons why the UK should not rush to quit the EU, but a new consensus is emerging: the EU needs to work for Britain, or it may just have to work without it.
For most of the last 20 years being a Euroskeptic in the UK has been a bit like having chlamydia: common, widely sympathized with, but not something you admit to at parties — or elections. In the last couple of years something has changed, and UKIP’s success is just one symptom.
The European Constitution fiasco of 2007 was a watershed. British people didn’t like it. They didn’t like the word ‘constitution’ with its trappings of statehood; they didn’t like its attempts to give the EU even greater powers under the cover of lawyers’ jargon; and they especially didn’t like the fact that they had no idea what it actually said because it was so long that they’d never find the time, and so boring that they’d never stay awake.
Then, when the constitution was rejected in a string of referenda across the continent, the Eurocrats utterly failed to get the point. Instead of truly looking again at their plans, they simply changed its name to the Lisbon Treaty, made some cosmetic alterations, and gave it another go. Shockingly the British government went along with it, passing the treaty without offering the people a referendum — just in case they came up with the wrong answer.
The whole episode drew even greater attention to the EU’s huge accountability issues. Why — British people increasingly asked — were EU laws proposed by bureaucrats and not elected officials? Why did the EU’s most powerful law-making body — the Council of Ministers — meet in secret? When it came to the EU, how were they supposed to “vote the rascals out”?
The Euro crisis, which continues to make headlines, has confirmed that those who said that the EU was the UK’s only hope for prosperity were overstating their case. With the choice no longer looking like one between the EU and impoverished irrelevance, many increasingly feel ready to criticize the EU’s gaping democratic deficit and intrusive interference in issues that could as easily be decided by Parliament in London as by officials in Brussels.
Some UKIP enthusiasts may — as their opponents claim — be reactionary “Little Englanders.” However, last week’s election results show that they are increasingly attracting wide support, including from those who just want to make sure that they keep control of those who control them.