The English have always been ambiguous towards "the continent". It is, as any self-respecting English person will tell you, full of foreigners. And England's Conservatives, particularly their more reactionary, chauvinistic rump, have always been anti-European Union.
So, as the EU contemplates moving towards greater integration, it was not entirely surprising UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced overnight he would hold a referendum on whether the UK would remain within the EU and, if so, on what terms. There was some ambiguity in Cameron’s speech, with some viewing it as a bet each way on the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe.
The Conservatives had already introduced a "referendum lock" on acceding further powers to the EU, which means further pro-EU changes have to go to a ballot. But Cameron is now looking to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU on those areas previously agreed to.
If the renegotiation is successful, he says, he will support remaining within the EU. But, if not, Cameron says UK voters would have the simple choice of leaving altogether. The likely date for the UK referendum on remaining within the 27 countries is the next elections in 2015.
The UK’s ambiguity towards the EU has manifested most clearly in refusing to accept the euro as its currency. This has limited some financial elements of the UK’s economic integration into the EU but, with the eurozone going through an economic crisis, it has also shielded the UK economy from financial contagion.
In particular, the UK has been critical of the EU's handling of the Portugal-Ireland-Greece-Spain (PIGS) debt crisis and has been deeply unhappy about the ongoing bailout process, agreed to by the previous Labor government. The Conservative-led government’s plan is to extract itself from the bail-out process.
While economic matters are at the heart of the Cameron’s comments, many in the UK question the EU’s "democratic legitimacy". For some, this disguises a more base truth about national chauvinism.
In large part, Cameron’s speech was directed at his own backbenchers, who in turn are responding to an increasingly worried electorate. The speech was also directed at clawing back voters who have shifted across to the more stridently nationalist Independence Party, which is second to the Conservative Party in the UK’s EU representation.
As the Conservative-led coalition government struggles to maintain unity with its ideologically distinct Liberal-Democrat partners, Cameron has constructed the option of a referendum contingent upon the Conservatives winning the next elections.
Despite some question about how far Cameron wants to push the EU, the EU has, predictably, responded negatively to his proposal for UK exceptionalism. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called Cameron's proposal "cherry picking" and the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the UK could not choose "a la carte" from the EU's menu of agreements. For the EU to work, they say, members have to be equally committed.
But, at this stage, it may be that Cameron is gambling on reaching a watered down agreement which he can then use as a sop to disgruntled UK voters in 2015. Either that, or the cost of leaving the EU is, to a party long sceptical about it in the first place, less than the cost of losing the 2015 elections.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University