I’ve done a lot of UKIP bashing on this blog over the last six years. I’ve ridiculed and attempted to debunk numerous eurosceptic claims. After all, I think that the idea of European Union (in its broadest possible sense) is a good thing, and I firmly believe that as long as some form of European economic/political organisation exists it is in Britain’s (and every European country’s) best interest to be a part of it. I also hope that, down the line, such international/supranational cooperation can be expanded far beyond Europe’s borders. Nationalism is, for me, an outmoded way of doing business, and detrimental to the best interests of the people of all nations – just as are all exclusionary ideologies, be they racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever. I am an internationalist and a humanist – again, both in their broadest possible sense – and so cannot support what I see as the parochialism of the nationalist/”patriotic” parties of right or left.
However, despite my dislike of UKIP, the BNP and other withdrawalist/anti-EU parties (of which these are the principle two in the UK), anti-EU and eurosceptic voices have a vital role to play.
The makeup of the European Parliament during the last five years has been sorely unrepresentative. Its racial makeup is nowhere close to mirroring that of Europe as a whole, with groups with sizable minorities left with nothing like the percentages of MEPs that one would expect, were the EP to mirror European society. Women are, as in most democratic societies, still hugely under-represented at EU level; there are few openly gay MEPs; few Muslims; only one Roma MEP despite this group being one of the largest and most persecuted of Europe’s minorities.
Eurosceptics – using the term in its broadest sense – are also sorely under-represented. The no votes in France, the Netherlands and Ireland are proof that there is a groundswell of discontent with the present EU system, and this discontent sorely needs to be aired more frequently in the European Parliament. Do a trawl of the blogs and you’ll soon see that even the most pro-EU bloggers will often violently criticise all kinds of aspects of the way the EU currently runs, from the obvious travesties – like the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies – through to issues of democratic representation (it takes 800,000 Germans to elect one MEP as opposed to just 80,000 Maltese, for example). With the EU still seriously under-reported in almost every member state, and with so few sceptical voices around to form an opposition – one of the most essential elements of any healthy democratic system – little wonder that there is so much public frustration. The worries of the people are not, in the eyes of the people, being addressed.
The EU is currently in a period of crisis. The failure of the 2001 Treaty of Nice to resolve the transition to a union of 25 rather than 15 was followed by the failure of the Constitution and Lisbon Treaty to mop up the mess, yet now the Union is of 27, with yet more queueing up to join. The EU is now a Union of half a billion people, one of the largest and most powerful economic blocs in the world, and yet is working on mechanisms designed for a much, much smaller organisation. Resentment has been building for years – not just among the people, but also among the governments that head up the member states. The Treaty of Nice, the Constitution, the Lisbon Treaty – these were all meant to resolve these tensions, and all have failed.
Even if the Lisbon Treaty does end up coming into force, still countless problems remain unsolved. There are still some member states that long for closer political union, while others desire little more than a trading bloc based on the Common Market; the current system of budget contributions still sees relatively wealthy western European member states receive far more funding than the struggling post-communist newcomers of the East. France, one of the richest member states, still receives a hugely disproportionate chunk of Common Agricultural Policy money, while farmers in Romania struggle by on little more than a subsistence level. And all the while, there remains no consensus on where the EU is heading – on what the EU is actually for.
Over the next five years – Lisbon Treaty or no Lisbon Treaty – these problems are all going to have to be addressed, and it is the MEPs who we are meant to be electing in a couple of weeks’ time who are going to have to scrutinise the plans and proposals that are put forward to resolve them. If the European Parliament is made up of a majority of unthinking europhiles, of fervent internationalists, then this scrutiny is not going to be intensive enough. Imagine a House of Commons made up of 80% Labour or Conservative MPs. That would not be healthy for democracy, but more importantly it would not be the kind of check that is necessary to prevent bad legislation and bad constitutional reforms from being passed. But with the lack of eurosceptic voices in the European Parliament, that is effectively the situation we have at the moment.
We sorely need more critical voices if the EU is ever going to become the kind of genuinely positive force that it could – and should – be. We need more MEPs like Danish eurosceptic Jens-Peter Bonde (now sadly retired, though still active in the field of EU politics), and even like UKIP leader Nigel Farage – intelligent, sharp critics of the project who can home in on flaws and highlight things that the EU is doing wrong. Yes, they may have a tendency to over-egg the pudding, to play to the gallery, and to blow things out of all proportion to make petty political points – but they also highlight genuine concerns and, often, genuine problems.
If we don’t know the problems – and if these problems are not brought into the light – then abuses and mistakes will simply continue unnoticed. Until, that is – as British MPs have found during the last few weeks of the expenses scandal – something happens that shows just how bad the problem has got, and brings the entire system to the brink of collapse.
If you don’t listen to criticism, you deserve to fail. So though I may not agree with the anti-EU brigade, and though I will continue to mock them when they make mistakes and call them when they make unjustifiable claims, they have an essential part to play. They are the EU’s opposition, and in any respectable political system a vocal opposition is something to be encouraged, not suppressed. Even if they are wrong.