While the rest of the European Union celebrated the honour of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the halls of Westminster were conspicuously silent on the matter. There can be no doubt that the EU has transformed Europe from “a continent of war to a continent of peace”, but the lack of enthusiasm at the announcement this side of the English Channel reflects the growing debate about Britain’s role within the EU. With the issue of Europe cropping up at the recent UK political party conferences, it is clear that Britain’s future in the EU is deeply contested.

Image courtesy of World Economic Forum, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The British press certainly did not miss the irony of the Peace Prize being awarded at time of social and economic unrest, particularly in the wake of the Eurozone crisis and unpopular austerity measures sparking riots in a number of member states. While policy makers in Britain may be congratulating themselves for being ‘wise’ enough to pursue a half-in half-out policy approach to the EU, especially in staying out of the Eurozone, it has become all too apparent that, regardless of how Eurosceptic we may seem to politicians in Brussels, Britain is by no means insulated from the uncertainties that such economic and political unions bring.

Austerity measures, the effects of bailouts and the less than perfect track record of the coalition government have prompted a reassessment of Britain’s current and future role in the EU from the major political parties. At the Conservative Party conference, Foreign Secretary William Hague called for a “new settlement in Europe”, although exactly what this will look like in reality remains to be seen. David Cameron, meanwhile, has threatened to veto a European budget that puts the interest of the Single Currency over that of Britain, echoing Hague’s decisive vision of Britain as a “country with a global role and global interests, unafraid to take a lead when it is needed and tireless in striving for a more peaceful and stable world”. Cameron’s hardline attitude to European budget spending has certainly not won the UK many friends in European politics, with the British-German relationship coming under increasing strain as rumours circulated that Angela Merkel was prepared to cancel an upcoming EU summit unless Cameron backs down over spending cuts. The Conservatives have further cemented Britain’s rather uncooperative and isolationist image by negotiating our exit from the £50 billion Eurozone bailout strategy in 2013, and any encroachment on Britain’s political and economic powers by the EU will have to pass a referendum. Cameron is in strong favour of a referendum to show popular consent to this proposed “new settlement”, but with the rejection of a simple yes/no option to EU membership, the British public are still left clueless about how the Conservatives plan on forging a path of leadership in European politics.

It is no secret that the coalition government is racked with internal divisions and suffering from increasing public doubt and dissatisfaction. While Nick Clegg’s apologies might not have won over the hearts and minds of disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters, the attempt to block the Conservative’s plans to opt out of up to 130 EU policing and judicial measures may appeal to those more concerned about security and crime in the EU over Britain’s political autonomy. Ironically, many see that opting out of such measures would further isolate Britain’s position in the EU rather than assert Britain’s influence on the EU stage. Far from being concerned about European power politics however, the Lib Dems seek to pursue policies that work within the European framework to boost growth, deliver security, and combat current issues such as climate change and poverty. Rather than rejecting the European Union completely, in his speech Nick Clegg focused on how Britain could improve its standing, and leadership, in the European and world economies, arguing for an “open, outward looking economy in the world’s biggest single market. A strong, balanced economy built on productive investment, not debt-fuelled consumption…Britain leading the world.”

Labour, on the other hand, appears somewhat indifferent on questions of European membership, budgets, and referendums. In fact, unlike the other two parties, their official website has no mention of any concrete policies on Europe. The EU was conspicuous in its absence from Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party conference, apart from a cursory remark that Britain will continue to engage with Europe and the rest of the world. Favoured instead was the mantra of Britain as “One Nation”, stronger when united against the coming economic storms. Perhaps this is reflective of the pressing issues in current UK domestic politics, but criticisms from Labour towards the Conservatives’ marginalisation of Britain in the EU cannot be taken seriously if no alternatives are suggested.

Ed Miliband’s nationalist “One Nation” rhetoric was pounced upon by the other political parties, all eager to appeal to a patriotic Britain after a summer of Jubilee celebrations and Olympic and Paralympic success. However, could this be little more than a propaganda smokescreen to counter opposition to harsh welfare cuts on the part of the coalition, and a cheap shot at the failings of Conservative policies by Labour? With the referendum on Scottish independence looming in 2014, there are certainly many arguments being made for Britain being stronger when it acts together, but the question goes further than simply a united kingdom. It was precisely upon this premise of strength through integration and coordination that the European Union was first built. How can the European Union be expected to live up to its promises if its members shun cooperation? The rhetoric of “One Nation” standing strong together is all very well in domestic politics, but in such an integrated economic system plagued with crises that go beyond national borders, Britain simply cannot afford to withdraw and dictate policy from the outside.