Despite its massive propaganda budget, support for the European Union, although popular in some countries, is half hearted or worse in many others. Recent Eurobarometer figures show a mixed picture. Support generally for the EU across all Member States has been tracking at an average of only just over 50%. As has consistently been the case over a long period, the British are among the least enthusiastic about membership, with support running at no more than about one third of those polled. While attachment to the nation state is high everywhere, the European Union has never attracted anything like the same loyalty and support. It is not hard to see why there was always a danger that this would happen. Nation states have a mixture of history, language and customs which binds their constituent populations together in a way which the EU has never managed to achieve. Nevertheless, the EU might have done better than it has if it had evolved in a different way than has actually materialised. The problem is that the EU, in its present form, is not only in many ways a very artificial creation, it has also alienated its electorate in a whole variety of unnecessary ways. This is particularly the case in Britain which arguably has done worse out of membership of the EU than any other Member State.
Many of the complaints about the EU apply across all Member States. The EU is widely perceived as being thoroughly undemocratic, as it was indeed intended it should be by its founders, who deeply distrusted democracy. Instead they thought that rule by officials would be better with only sufficient democratic trappings to give the appearance of some control by the electorate over what was being done, even though most of this was an illusion. This is why the so called European Parliament is really only a consultative assembly, with no power - as all proper parliaments have - to make or break governments. Instead nearly all the real power lies with unelected officials at the Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice. The result is that voters across the EU rightly believe that they have little control over what the EU does. These negative views are undoubtedly reinforced by other characteristics of the EU and those who run it, many of which are themselves the product of the democratic deficit from which the EU unquestionably suffers. The extent to which EU officials, including Members of the European Parliament, have managed to feather their nests with exorbitant salaries, pensions and expenses has outraged ordinary people, especially those suffering from the current economic turmoil. The hyper-activity of the EU in imposing endless regulations, whose total cost far exceeds their benefits, frustrates everyone involved. The waste and extravagance involved in many EU projects, particularly the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and now the Galileo project for duplicating at vast expense the American Global Position System provided free to the rest of the world, have antagonised many people who might otherwise have been more sympathetic to what the EU is supposed to be achieving.
Part of the reason why the EU is particularly unpopular in Britain stems from the different history and traditions we have in the UK from those on the continent. Our legal system, based particularly in England and Wales on Common Law, comes from roots strongly distinct from the Napoleonic system, based on Roman law, which prevails over most of the rest of Europe. We are used to different weights and measures. Our attitude to trade has for a long time been much more open and less protectionist than is generally the case on the continent. Historically, we have been much closer to the USA than nearly all other European countries, partly because we share a common language with North America. Membership of the EU has thus tended to grate on peoples' instinctive likes and prejudices more in the UK than in other Member States. There are, however, also a number of much more concrete and indisputable reasons for UK scepticism about our EU membership.
Britain's membership of the EU is extremely expensive. We are major net contributors to the EU budget and to the cost of other EU activities. This has been the case every year but one since we joined what was then the Common Market. Currently we pay in about 10 billion pounds a year to the EU budget but we only receive back about 6 billion pounds - often on projects which would not in any event be our top priority. There is thus currently a net budgetary cost of around 4 billion pounds, but this is set to rise substantially over the next few years to at least 6 billion pounds by 2013. Additional costs are, however, inevitable. Britain's off budget contributions to EU institutions appear to be rising from about 2 billion pounds to 3 billion pounds a year, partly because of what we have to pay for projects such as Galileo. On top of this, the recent weakening of the pound against the euro adds about 400 million pounds a year to an already very high total. At a time when the UK's public finances are in dire shape, does it really make any sense to pay these huge net sums to the EU - especially as they have to be paid in euros and not pounds, thus aggravating our already very weak international payments position?
Another major source of discontent in Britain about the EU concerns the EU's flagship policies on agriculture and its involvement in fisheries. The CAP keeps food prices far higher than world prices, thus supposedly protecting EU farmers. In fact, however, most of the huge subsidies thus involved go to either people who are already very rich or to agribusinesses, neither of which need subsidies, and not to small scale farmers. The results of the misallocation of resources thus entailed are disastrous. As poorer people spend more on food than those who are richer, high food prices are highly regressive in income redistribution terms. Huge cost - still nearly half the EU budget - are entailed in running the CAP, which are a burden on everyone. The cost to Britain alone, estimated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is about 15 billion pounds per annum. The effect on the Third World of the CAP has been catastrophic, as surplus food dumped on world markets combined with EU protectionism, has undermined the ability of poor countries to use agricultural products to trade out of poverty. The CFP, although smaller in scale, has been proportionately even worse in the results which it has achieved. By turning all the waters round the EU coast into a common EU resource, all effective control of over-fishing has been lost in a welter of inappropriate subsidies and bad management as huge quantities of perfectly edible fish have to be thrown back into the sea every year to meet arbitrary and poorly enforced quotas. In both the cases of the CAP and CFP, Britain has been a heavy loser on both financial and ecological grounds.
While almost no-one suggest that we should not co-operate with our European neighbours wherever it makes sense to do so, there is a major question as to whether this is best done by inter-governmental co-operation or by pooling our sovereignty with other countries. It is a striking fact that almost everywhere in the world apart from in Europe, the inter-governmental route is almost always the preferred one. Nowhere else do we see countries merging their sovereignty on a major scale into supra-national institutions like those we have in the EU. Of course, all inter-governmental agreements require some constraints on the participants' freedom of action. This kind of co-operation, however, leaves the countries involved with the ability not to take part in initiatives with which they do not agree and thus with a substantial measure of control over those in which they do participate. The erosion of this kind of freedom of manoeuvre, partly no doubt because of our history and traditions but partly also because we appear more often than others to have a different point of view, appears to give substantially greater cause for concern in the UK than in other EU Member States. This is why there is particular reluctance in the UK to pool our military resources in a European army and to give up our roles in the United Nations and elsewhere in international institutions. There is also great regret among many people in the UK that we are bound into the highly protectionist stance taken by the EU on international trade negotiations. There is little doubt that we could have played a much more valuable and constructive role, for example in the recent Doha round of trade negotiations, if we had not been bound into the EU stance which, particularly on agriculture, was a major reason why negotiations have not so far been brought to a successful conclusion.
Britain, very probably more than any other EU Member State, is in an increasingly awkward position. The EU, largely unconstrained by democratic pressures, is developing in ways which few in the UK really support. Almost everyone in Britain wants friendship with our European neighbours, and supports freedom to trade and travel in the EU. There is, however, very little support for the steady drift away from powers being in the hands of the nation state, and in particular the British parliament and the governments it then forms, to them being invested in pan-European institutions. There is almost no enthusiasm for a European super-state although everyone is conscious of the fact that this is steadily the direction in which we are moving, as many political leaders in the EU openly admit. The problem we therefore face is that what is actually happening is not what most people in Britain - and, perhaps a lesser extent, the electorates in other countries - want to see occurring. There is also - unfortunately - no clear way of stopping this drift towards Euro-centralisation, and Britain being involved with it, as long as all the major political parties in the UK acquiesce with varying degrees of enthusiasm in allowing this to happen. It is, however, a very dangerous situation when there is such a gap between the policies in which - often with evidently little genuine conviction - our political leaders support and what the electorate clearly wants. How long can this continue?