Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Eurosceptism and UK by Dr Melanie Sully

Chapter in the Styrian Yearbook for Politics on British politics, English version here This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Prof Dr Melanie Sully on Eurosceptism and the Royal Jubilee Year first published in the Styrian Yearbook for Politics


The Queen’s diamond jubilee, a blue sapphire wedding anniversary (65 years of marriage with Prince Philip) and the announcement of a future royal baby marked the highlights for the House of Windsor in 2012. The year also witnessed an intensive discussion on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, Britain was a very different place from today. Winston Churchill, already in his late 70s, had just returned as Prime Minister and the two party system was a strong feature of the political landscape. Then the Conservative Party had around three million members compared with under 200,000 sixty years later, a trend which is mirrored in other parties and countries. Churchill took over from the Labour premier Attlee and with this came a long period of political stability and consensus which lasted for decades up until the immediate pre-Thatcher era.

Since Churchill, the Queen has seen eleven prime ministers including Harold MacMillan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath who took Britain into the Common Market, Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair. When the present Prime Minister, David Cameron was born, the Queen had already been 14 years on the throne. Now he leads a coalition government, the first ever formed as a result of a parliamentary election. Previous coalitions were formed in times of economic or political crises.


Parliament and the Monarchy

The coalition of 2010 formed between the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg, promised a new programme of constitutional reform which was to have implications for the position and powers of the British Monarchy. One point involved the abolition of the power of a British Prime Minister to decide the timing of a parliamentary election. The coalition passed a law on fixed term parliaments which means that the legislative period runs for five years and only in exceptional circumstances can an early election be called. Now a premature election can only ensue if a motion of the House of Commons with a two-thirds majority is passed to this effect or if a motion of no-confidence in the government is passed with a simple majority of votes and no alternative emerges within fourteen days. With this change the royal prerogative of the monarchy to dissolve parliament on the advice of the prime minister, has also gone. The Monarch can still issue a proclamation summoning a new parliament. In addition the opening of parliament and the Queen’s speech, which previously used to take place each Autumn has been rescheduled for Spring, the first occurring in May 2012.


Britain and Europe

The British royal family has always been closely linked through marriage to Europe. Its name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was changed during the First World War because it sounded too German and was replaced with the name of a castle, Windsor. The Duke of Edinburgh himself was born in Corfu and had the title of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark.

In addition after the Second World War a series of “twinning” projects developed to link cities together which had been former enemies in war or had suffered aerial bombardment. This endeavour had the aim of building trust between a new generation (of eg Britons and Germans) to overcome the prejudices of the past. Successful school projects developed (eg between Bristol and Hannover and Coventry and Dresden) which allowed for exchanges and home visits. The experience and contacts served to promote European ties, something often drowned by more vociferous sceptical sentiment.

For 40 of the 60 odd years of Elizabeth’s reign, Britain has been a member of the European project but its relationship with the EU has not been an easy one (1) and both Labour and Conservatives have been divided on the pace and degree of integration. Throughout 2012 Euro sceptics in the parliamentary Conservative party increasingly caused trouble for Cameron. The backbenchers, a force to be reckoned with, put pressure on the leadership to call for a referendum to decide Britain’s membership. It only needs 15% of the parliamentary party to call for a vote of no confidence in the leader even if he or she is the prime minister.

Although Cameron at first preferred a more nebulous referendum on renegotiated terms, he eventually came round to opting for a clear Yes/No decision to be held if he were re-elected. He made clear his view which would be to remain in a reformed EU. Former PM John Major also greeted the referendum as a chance to settle a controversy which had raged too long. The possibility of the UK Independence Party, which openly supports withdrawal from the EU, hiving off votes from the Tories made such a move also tactically appealing even if a high risk gamble that can go wrong.


Polls and Europe

Polls have generally shown a majority in favour of holding a referendum on Europe. Those under the age of 55 have never had a chance to have their say on membership. The Economist cited a YouGov poll in December 2012 showing 49% for leaving the EU and a third against with the rest undecided. An Angus Reid poll in August 2012 showed that only 6% wanted the Euro as a currency. All three main parties, big business and the trade unions favour staying in the EU and amongst 18-34 year olds European feeling is more positive. Popular boulevard papers tend to be against the EU, unlike at the last referendum in 1975 when two-thirds of the electorate voted to stay in the European Economic Community. However even then before the campaign had begun, polls showed a majority against the EU.

Until recently the in/out option in a referendum was merely hypothetical and respondents could utter their frustration with Europe without fear of the consequences. In 1975 the arguments of the opponents of membership with abstract notions of parliamentary sovereignty were not so persuasive in the end as the fear that life would be even worse outside in the cold. Generally the feeling expressed in polls to date is against the status quo in Europe but a reformed EU could still awaken support.

A Eurobarometer survey in November, 2012 showed that the UK is not the most sceptical of the EU countries. Whilst 63% of Britons thought that the EU is going in the wrong direction, 67% Swedes were of this opinion and 71% in Cyprus(2). Bulgarians were the most enthusiastic about the EU. Also according to the same survey trust levels are low in Britain when it comes to Europe at only 20% but only 25% trust the national government. In Spain the figure is also 20% for Europe but a mere 11% have trust in the national government. Greece came at the bottom with 18% trust level in the EU and just 7% in their own government.


Shades of Sceptism

Eurosceptics are not an homogenous group in the UK. There are moderates who would like to see some things change in the workings of the EU and there are those who would want a complete break. In the former group there are many who oppose different directives (Richtlinien) of the EU on social or working hours but when it comes down to a straight choice, they would be hesitant to pull out.

In addition the Coalition has already passed a Referendum Act which allows for an automatic popular vote in cases of future transfer of power and competencies to Europe. This was passed with the support of Nick Clegg and the Liberals and Labour has indicated it would not repeal the Act if elected. This was aimed at calming the moderate Eurosceptics.

In 2012 the Coalition started a so-called audit of the ministries with the help of independent experts to assess the impact of EU laws  and to see how much needs to be done at European level and what could be better done at national level. This has been conducted for example in the Environment and Health ministries and the exercise should be completed by 2014 in time for the next election. Many favour some kind of rebalancing in the powers and competencies between the UK and Europe.  Foreign Minister William Hague strives for more flexibility in relations with the EU saying that it cannot be a question of “everything or nothing”. The UK Independence Party derides such efforts by the Cameron administration as a trick to try and keep sceptics on board. 


Britannia Modernises

Towards the end of 2012, BuckinghamPalace announced the news that William and Kate were expecting their first child. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister with responsibility for constitutional affairs, could announce that the UK parliament would be pressing ahead with legislation to change the rules on succession to the throne to allow for a future Queen, should the royal baby be a girl (3).

In this exercise it was not Europe which would be involved but the Commonwealth countries of which the Queen is head of state, 15 besides the UK all of whom should give their assent to such changes. This will bring the British monarchy in line with other royal families in Europe such as Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. Coordinating the Commonwealth legislative changes is New Zealand and the decision follows an agreement by the Commonwealth leaders taken in PerthAustralia in 2011.

Gender will not play a role in the future succession rules to the British throne and possibly one day another Queen could enjoy her diamond jubilee. Whether a Britain then will be an EU member depends not just on the strength of the Eurosceptics or on a referendum but also on the sustainability of governance in the EU and its capacity to integrate not just in policy areas but also its existing members.



1. “Großbritannien, Europa und das Referendum”, Melanie Sully, Europäische Rundschau, 4/2012.

2. „Umfrage: ‚EU entwickelt sich in falsche Richtung’“, Die Presse, 24.1. 2013

3. „Monarchie und Kirche: Britische Verhältnisse“, Melanie Sully, Die Furche, 12.4. 2012.