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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The dishonesty of the EU debate

Over at his Economist blog, Charlemagne asks “Why it is anti-EU to suggest that the European Parliament does not work very well?”

Herein lies one of the most fundamental problems of the EU debate – something to which I seem repeatedly to return.

The EU is an incredibly complex socio-economic political experiment – a type of regulatory/governmental body unlike anything that has ever been tried before. It is made up of myriad institutions and semi-official bodies, many of which have vast areas of overlap both with each other and with national governments. Good chunks of the EU machinery work only through sharing staff with the agencies, civil services and governments of the member states (the Council being made up of ministers from the member states, the Commission relying on the law-drafting powers of civil servants from the member states, and so on).

At the same time, the EU works across a vast array of policy and regulatory areas – agriculture, fisheries, monetary policy (in some member states, at least), migration and immigration, trade, security and justice, competition and business, aspects of education, sporting and cultural events, and on and on and on.

And yet, whenever the merits of the EU are discussed – especially in the mainstream media – it is presented in simple, confrontational black and white terms. You are either for the EU, or you are against. A eurosceptic or a europhile. Pro-EU or anti-EU.

Like Charlemagne, I’ve been accused of being both a eurosceptic and a europhile in my time – I describe myself as loosely pro-EU, so to some of those in the anti- camp, that makes me a europhile; yet I frequently criticise the EU, so to some of those in the pro- camp I am a eurosceptic.

Yet both europhiles and eurosceptics (and especially their most fervent elements, the withdrawalists and the superstatists) represent the extremes of opinion on the EU. It’s like presenting a jury in a trial with only two alternatives – either let the accused off Scott free or execute them, with no option for fines, community service, rehab or prison sentences. (To make matters worse, although there is a sizable minority of eurosceptics who are actively anti-EU and advocate either withdrawal or its abolition, I have come across very few uncritical europhiles – an imbalance that distorts the debate yet further.)

The presentation of the arguments about the EU in such a manner is not just misleading – it is also dishonest. The choice is not between a federal European superstate and complete withdrawal – yet it suits the extremes on both sides to play up this false binary choice. The europhiles warn of the dire consequences of international isolation should we not back further integration, while the euroscptics warn of a loss of sovereignty and national identity should we continue to allow the EU to expand its influence.

Neither option has to be the case – nor is either option likely in an organisation made up of 27 member states where vetoes and unanimity ensure that almost all decisions are watered-down compromises. Yet these extremes are pretty much all we are ever told about – the dire danger of passing the Constitution / Lisbon Treaty is to move ever closer to the superstate; the dire danger of not passing it is the breakup of the EU itself and a descent into the bad old days of national rivalries and protectionist squabbles. This is nonsense.

Yet in the public debates about the EU there seems to be no room for any shades of grey – indeed, in my experience of doing media punditry about the EU, extreme views are positively encouraged to “liven up” a subject usually (and correctly) considered rather dull.

The idea of a political system that works pretty much entirely via compromise and cooperation, as the EU does, seems anathema to a press that’s always keen to play up political differences and conflict. When faced with a political organisation that, on the surface, seems more or less monolithic (“the EU” being shorthand for the European Parliament, Council, Commission, Court of Justics, or any of its other institutions and agencies depending on the context – sometimes even individual Commissioners and MEPs, and occasionally even institutions that have nothing to do with the EU), the press – and in turn the extreme pro- and anti-EU groups who find such a situation to their advantage – has created a conflict between two artificial extremes in order to force the debate to conform to anachronistic preconceptions about how political discourse is conducted that are entirely inappropriate when approaching something as innovative and unique as the EU.

I remain convinced – and the continued falling turnout at EU elections tends to support this – that the vast majority of people neither really know nor care about the EU enough to form an opinion one way or the other, and that this artificial binary choice between pro- and anti- is serving only to put more people off. But at the same time, anyone who starts looking into the EU with an open mind – as I like to think I have tried to do – will end up (if they are not tricked by the vast amounts of disinformation that seems to swamp all EU debate into believing things that are simply not true) somewhere in the grey middle ground, neither supporting it entirely, nor wishing for it to be done away with. One of the reasons for the continuing decline in turnout at EU elections, I’d suggest, is precisely because voters feel they have to decide whether they are pro- or anti-EU, yet mostly feel neither.

These people, wavering halfway between supporting the EU and thinking it’s a bit rubbish in places, seem to lack a convenient moniker. They are neither europhiles nor eurosceptics. But there is a perfect term for them – they are the majority.

12 Comments

  1. “The choice is not between a federal European superstate and complete withdrawal”

    While I would genuinely hope this to be the case, there is a major stumbling block for your argument, the goal of the EU being “ever closer union”. The inevitable result of that is an EU nation state and every treaty over the years has supported that goal in as far as giving further competances to the EU.

    There is certainly a case for an EU level organisation but not one on the current model. The EU has competances over many areas that should be matters for national or even local governance and is, (in my opinion), hopelessly corrupt. Nor can the EU be fixed, its failures are on such a scale that we need to break it down and start again, then perhaps we could have a reasonable debate about what should be done at what level.

    Si non operandum, delenda est.

  2. My motto’s always been if it’s broke, fix it – so si non operandum, redintegro is?

    On your superstate concerns, please see this post (among others in my recent superstate series, such as this one.

    As for the rest, I agree that serious reform is difficult (witness the struggles that have been going on for the last decade to revise the way the EU operates post-expansion, which started in the late 90s with the negotiations over the Treaty of Nice, continued with the Constitution and Lisbon, and still won’t all have been sorted even if Lisbon does end up coming into force). But I’ve argued before against the idea that the EU cannot be reformed, and will continue to do so.

    The longer the current stalemate continues, the more likely it is that the EU will extend the existing multiple-tier approach (the Eurozone, Schengen, the various opt-outs of various member states, etc.) to allow those countries that want ever-closer *political* union to carry on with more and more integration, and those which are less keen to opt in or out of those parts of the EU project that they like. Combine that with the subsidarity principle – enshrined in every EU treaty since Maastricht (including the Constitution and Lisbon) – and the recent efforts by the Commission to deregulate and hand powers back to the member states (efforts mostly resisted by the governments of the member states), and I’m increasingly hopeful of some genuinely radical reforms.

    I’m not expecting these reforms to happen overly soon – probably not until after the next round of negotiations over the EU budget and Common Agricultural Policy reform inevitably hit trouble in a few years’ time – but the more the enthusiastic EU integrationists are prevented from moving forward by the more reluctant member states (vetoes and unanimity would remain in place on most substantive issues even if Lisbon comes into force, after all), the more the official entrenchment of the idea of a multi-tier EU will start to appeal. It’s the best solution for all parties.

  3. I am afraid that I can only agree with Falco’s comments above, Nosemonkey.

    The people of Britain love their own country, a lot of them don’t see the EU as anything other than a bureaucracy that imposes unwanted regulations. We are never going to love the EU. The election figures tell us all we want to know about the British attitude to the EU but the same interested parties, namely those who get something out of it, will carry on ignoring the opinions of the electorate and carry on regardless.

    As a ‘working class’ person I only perceive the EU as a corporatist monster. It uses the poorer people of the EU to pursue an agenda of maximizing profits for large businesses whilst forcing down the wages and conditions of the people in better off countries such as Britain.

    For this purpose it must have an excess of labour, hence huge immigration and large numbers of migrant workers swarming around Europe. The policy is backed up by the EU’s legal fraternity prattling on about rights and freedoms and bringing in laws on xenophobia. Basically all these caring legal souls are doing is making criminals of people who are only concerned with saving their jobs and conditions of work. As a manual worker it is amusing to see how the ‘Left’ is so taken in by this.

    I am also in agreement on the corrupt and corrupting nature of the EU. When the EU’s Trade and Industry representative spends some time on a Russsian oligarchs yacht and that Russian is then given advantages in his dealings with the EU then we are looking at something that stinks.

    We have the damage done to democracy by the EU. We now have a large amount of people in the House of Lords who depend on the EU for a pension. How can we trust them to put the concerns of the British people before their EU pensions. We also have a situation, such as in Richard Corbett’s case, where the rejection of a politician and his policies is disregarded and that ex-politician is then offered a lucrative job by the colleagues. What is the point of anybody voting?

    I don’t want the EU to become more transparent or more accountable, I just don’t want the EU at all. It is one huge and costly mistake.

  4. Instead of being pro- or anti-EU, a better point for a discussion is do we need to cooperate with each other, if so what form should it take, and why.

    The EU developed as a result of specific circumstances that have changed and developed (and if you ask me, are even more urgent).

    The EU is a terrible system for cooperation, but its better than the alternatives. And its a model that is being expanded and developed all over the world.

  5. Nosemonkey, I agree entirely. It’s not eurosceptic to question what the EP is for, what it achieves and whether we want it to do more, or less, it’s the action of mature democrats.

    But equally the maturity in the debate requires that, if it makes sense for something that we want to do is best done at European level, that we accept this rather than endlessly demanding that national level is best and should be the default (e.g. CFP is a mess but in part its a mess because fish don’t respect national boundaries so repatriation of fisheries policy is a very odd thing indeed to demand in comparison with root-and-branch reform of CFP at the European level).

    The original idea behind the Convention on the future of Europe, and the subsequent Constitutional Treaty, was to be a full-on review and restructure to fit the needs of C21 Europeans. I guess we can say it failed in that (although its still not totally clear just why) and there are certainly some eccentricities in what is covered by European comeptence, in what way.

    But wg’s comments above kind of illustrate the problem with looking for that debate in the UK.
    Europhiles feel the need to talk up the EU and not talk so much about the problems although as you say most feel the EU is not perfect.
    Unless there’s someone out there to explain what good things we as a country get from being part of the EU, then the only impression that’s out there to be gained is that the EU is what’s in the press and what comes out of the politicians themselves (national with the agendas that come with that or EU where our media appears to have a habit of seeking out those with less moderate views).

    And it’s always easier to listen to those shouting “EU, EU EU – out! out! out!” than to those saying “what do we want? A technical yet plain language discussion of the practical implications of the benefits and costs of addressing issues at different levels of political decision-making including European level, reappraisal of each and an institutional structure that faciliates this, accessible for and engaging with all! When do we want it? Within a reasonable timescale that allows for genuine debate without dragging on!”

    Yep, I think we need a proper discussion. And part of me goes, bring it on! But I remain to be convinced that we are able to do that in the UK at present precisely because things have got so polemic and because a lot of people would frankly rather be watching Eastenders or the football. And despite being an EU geek, that sometimes includes me!

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  7. The old family motto, (unofficial and probably the result of generations of clumsyness), applies to those things where trying to fix it just makes more of a mess and I believe that that is the situation with the EU. Taking a read of the latest attempt to fix things, the Lisbon “model of clarity” Treaty does not inspire confidence. The problems of waste, corruption and opacity are features rather than bugs of the system and that is why I believe any sensible division of powers requires a new set up.

    The reasons that so many are convinced that a superstate is on the cards centre on two aspects; firstly, it has been the stated goal of many at the heart of the EU project, and secondly, EU competances have expanded into areas of our lives that few dreamed would ever be its concern despite assurances that there would be no great expansion of EU power. Given those points, a certain degree of scepticism regarding safeguards preventing further powers migrating to the EU is hardly astonishing.

    As to the multi speed approach there is a fundamental problem for those who dissagree with not just the speed but with the direction of travel. Those who, like Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, (though I’m sure with better intent than that schmuck), want the centre of Europe to become a single state are more than welcome to go ahead. However, dragging us into the same position is no more agreeable for the slower pace. If alternatively, we wouldn’t be subject to that traction then we would end up in something similar to the EFTA, a situation that many people in this country would be very happy with.

    Ultimately, the current options boil down to “ever closer union” at one speed or another or EFTA. To do anything outside of those otions requires a new organisation.

  8. I dont see that the two “extremes” camps of the debate are dishonest. If you honestly beleive in federalism and an EU state,you may have good reason for being so, and vice versa with the withdrawalists . Those who beleive in one form or the other but moderate their views in public are dishonest. As are those who like to intimate that intelligent,successful people or those in socio-economic groups A,B,C support their side.
    Of the three main plotical parties, I would say the Conservatives had the most dishonest policy towards the EU.

  9. Falco – A lot of good points in there, so I’ll try and come back to you in more detail in the next couple of days (it’s getting late, and I’m a bit busy tomorrow so may not find the chance).

    One point to start, however – I’m in favour of a multi-tier system, not a multi-speed system. A subtle difference, but an important one. “Ever closer union” is one of the concepts I’d be keen to drop from any future EU model – it’s far too vague a concept and so open to any number of interpretations and it is, in any case, contradicted by the existence of the subsidiarity principle, under which a number of EU competences should already be getting returned to the member states.

    Robin – I’m merely saying that the extremes on either side are dishonest in over-emphasising their levels of support and the (flawed) logic of their arguments. I don’t deny for one moment that there are committed withdrawalists or committed superstatists. I also agree entirely about those who say one thing in public while pushing for something altogether different behind closed doors – it’s one of the major reasons why I’m in favour of greater transparency (especially in the Council – though, to be fair, with that particular body, diplomatic issues could arrive without allowing a certain level of secrecy.)

    As for the three main parties’ policies when it comes to the EU, I’d say that only the Lib Dems really *have* any EU policies (and even those are vague). Over the last 12 years Labour’s singularly failed to be open about anything when it comes to the EU (as with so many things), while I don’t think even David Cameron really knows what the Conservative Party’s current EU policy is actually trying to achieve. I don’t think the Tories are being dishonest – they’re just being ignorant.

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  11. There are too many interesting points in your post to cover them in one comment, but I’d really like to hear your thoughts about why, as you say (and I’ve also found) “although there is a sizable minority of eurosceptics who are actively anti-EU and advocate either withdrawal or its abolition, I have come across very few uncritical europhiles”.

    My two eurocents: I think I’m like most pro-EU types in that I fall somewhere into the ‘positive grey’ zone – the EU’s better than what came before it, but it could be a lot better.

    It may be a sensible and rational position – what it lacks is passion. Eurosceptics have passion! Balls! Fire! It’s what makes them so much fun. Nothing grey there! ;-)

    Why is that? I don’t know, but I know one thing – thank God it’s true! On the rare occasions I do run into people who are genuinely passionately pro-European – with the same jingoistic, tub-thumping, from-the-balls europhilic passion that eurosceptics have – it makes my toes curl up inside my shoes.

    The EU was and should remain a rational solution to the problem of improving cooperation between nation states and getting us out of the anarchic model of international relations. Let’s hope we get less “Yay! Europe is Cool!” communications campaigns between now and 2014, and a better focus on where, how and why the EU adds value.

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