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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Why it’s hard to take eurosceptics seriously

There are many, many good arguments to be used against the EU. Scores of them, in fact. In places it’s massively inefficient. In places there are strong indications of what seems like systemic corruption. Some of the policies it has introduced have been hugely harmful to both people and the planet.

Eurosceptic loonBut do the eurosceptics use these as their main lines of attack? No. Instead they wander off into the realms of fantasy to spew out hilariously inane nonsense like this glorious example from leading Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens – easily the most stupid article I’ve read about the EU in years. Read the comments as well and it’ll swiftly become clear why some people assume that all eurosceptics are loons.

Eurosceptics aren’t loons, of course. At least, not all of them. Many eurosceptic complaints are largely valid and – as I’ve argued before – should be paid attention to.

But the maniacs tend to shout the loudest, and in the process end up doing the eurosceptic cause no end of harm. UKIP’s Nigel Farage realised this, hence his attempts to gradually cull the more verbal conspiracy theorists from the party over the last few years and associate with more intelligent and thoughtful critics of the EU like Jens-Peter Bonde and Marta Andreassen. The anti-EU crowd in Ireland have also no doubt realised this now – because one of the major reasons for the huge swing to the Yes camp was undoubtedly because the Irish people were so annoyed at being taken in by the baseless conspiracy theories that the No groups were spewing out last time around.

Because if – as Hitchens does in the article linked above – you wander off into the realms of hyperbole (e.g. the wonderfully idiotic claim that “Increasingly, the provinces of Europe, which until today were countries, will need its permission to exist at all” or the pathetic “Shouldn’t somebody have pointed out that in the recent history of the Continent, yellow stars call up only one dismal image, the mass murder of Europe’s Jews?” – that last especially awful considering the Mail’s support for the Nazis), all you end up doing is discrediting yourself.

Just as if I claimed that the EU’s great because it’ll give us all magical ponies that can fly and shit gold, you’d not pay attention to anything else I said as I was obviously a delusional liar, so do a lot of us get switched off every time a leading eurosceptic makes such obviously stupid remarks as those that run throughout Hitchens’ piece.

There are all sorts of genuine problems with the Lisbon Treaty. There are all sorts of entirely legitimate reasons why the Irish shouldn’t have held a second referendum, and why they should have voted no.

The thing is, I’ve hardly seen *any* of them brought up in the dozens of eurosceptic pieces that I’ve read over the last few days. Instead, eurosceptic arguments still seem largely to revolve around vague emotional appeals to patriotism and national myths, topped off with objectively false misrepresentations of what it is the EU does and is doing. Anyone with half a brain who looks at these arguments for half a minute will write them off as the nonsense that they are – and the eurosceptic cause takes yet another hit.

Every time you make such wild claims – and they turn out to be unfounded – you are alienating potential allies. When Lisbon comes into force and life in the EU continues much as before, proving all the claims that this treaty is in any way significant to be objectively false (because no matter what many eurosceptics claim, Lisbon *is* just a tidying-up exercise) – when member states continue to run themselves, when the threatened abortion clinics and enforced involvement in military campaigns fail to materialise – then anyone with half a brain will be able to see that the claims of the eurosceptics were false, and so stop paying them any further attention.

So come on, eurosceptic types – for your own sake start with the *proper* arguments against the EU. Stop all this hyperbolic emotional guff that’s characterised so much of the debate over the last couple of decades, and make with the convincing critical analysis. Stop with all the pathetic and blatantly false comparisons to dictatorships past and present. End the “EUSSR” meme – that only makes everyone who uses it look like a moron.

Instead, try pointing out what’s *actually* wrong with the EU, rather than make up nonsense about Lisbon ending Irish neutrality, forcing abortion, ending national sovereignty, creating a superstate and so on. You’ll find that you’ll win a lot more support – whereas at the moment you’re just preaching to the converted (as the comments to Hitchens’ piece perfectly prove).

It’s not like it’s a difficult target – the EU’s got so much wrong with it it’s like blasting away at the proverbial fish in a barrel. No one with any critical faculties can look at the EU and think it’s perfect. There’s simply no need for all the nonsense that Hitchens and co like to spew.

(And yes, I know that not all eurosceptics use the sorts of silly arguments noted above. The point is that as long as a vocal minority of eurosceptics do, the entire cause is going to continue to be damaged by association.)

114 Comments

  1. Nicholas – in which case I think we may be (sort of) in agreement. Because part of the point of the original post is that the current eurosceptic approach is only convincing to people who know little or nothing about the way the EU actually works or what the EU actually does, yet looks ridiculous to anyone who knows a bit more about the reality. To be more effective, they need to stick more to the facts, which will be more convincing to the political elites, as well as those who know a bit more.

    I’d agree that, in the UK at least, there’s probably a majority of the population that’s loosely eurosceptic. But I’d argue that a lot of this euroscepticism is based upon misunderstandings that have been deliberately propagated by anti-EU groups. (The “80% of all laws come from the EU” claim, or UKIP’s “£40 million a day” one in the run-up to the European elections this year, for example, are both better-known than the true situation.)

  2. Nicolas, I don’t think the eurosceptic movement has been very effective in general terms at all, except perhaps in the UK. Across Europe, it has failed to make a hot issue out of the question of EU membership. And as Nosemonkey says, in the UK, that is sadly largely the result of tabloid tactics and misinformation, when there is plenty of “real” dirt to dish. See my post on Open Europe for more:
    http://brusselscomment.blogspot.com/2009/10/open-europe-is-failing.html

  3. Nicolas, what I don’t understand is if the eurosceptic side is so unbeatably supported by the broad majority all over Europe, how does it come that out of 6 referendums over treaties, that does not cause enthusiasm in hardly anyone, 3 were in favour and 3 were in opposition? That hardly looks like a clear cut undefeatable public general EU skepticism.

  4. Niclas: if, by the eurosceptics you mean the eurosceptic UK press, then I fully agree they have continuously put over a very strong message (OK, based on what I see and read on my very occasional visits there). However, as has already been noted, so much of it is half-truths, deliberate distortion, taken out of context, or downright lies. Just the sort of stuff you would expect from the gutter press, but not the sort of stuff you would expect a reasonably intelligent person to accept at face value.

  5. Insideur and Nosemonkey: then I agree with you. Eurosceptics have not been efficient in terms of advancing their objectives but they have been quite successful in convincing a large portion of the population.

    Slartibartfas: I’m not talking about a “clear cut undefeatable public general EU scepticism”. What I am saying is that the propaganda of eurosceptics is clearly not as bad as hinted by the author of the post, at least when aimed at convincing the general public. Your own example of referendums, 3 in favour and 3 against, could be used to support my point. Don’t you think eurosceptics’ campaigning has been doing pretty well provided that all major parties were supporting the approval of the treaties on each instances? I mean, they were against all odds.

    Personally I think they’ve been doing a rather good job in convincing the people, and on the contrary the pro-EU propaganda has been quite bad.

  6. @Nicolas

    I just know the Austrian Eurosceptic propaganda (if you may call it that way) which is apart from some exceptions of plain terrible quality. Everyone who has only a slight idea of the EU can’t take it serious. There are few exceptions, where those agitating seem at least like they know what they are talking about, but their argumentation seems often so terribly biased and and on the brink of openly lying that it would never convince me either. I mean I am perfectly sure that people alike a Prof. Schachtschneider are intelligent, educated and know their field. But if someone tells me eg time over time again, that the Lisbon treaty as such will reintroduce capital punishment (and implying that it will dictate that on the memberstates), thats a point where they leave the arena of sensible argumentation.

    On the other side, lets have a look on the pro European propaganda (let’s call it consequently that way as well). Yes I think I can agree with you insofar as it is bad as well. (In my opinion however not quite as bad)

    In my opinion we do not lack EU haters on one side and EU self glorfying material on the other. We lack sensible information sources in between not specialiced on SUN scare stories or EUropean sunday speeches. We need more good journalism in Brussels and we need the whole spectrum of it. Liberal , conservative … and all of them please, independent from the EU.(I don’t think grants are a big problem, as long as they are fix and not dependent on the opinionated content but there must not be a connection to an EU institution otherwise)

    Regarding the Referendums. If you look at them, the arguments of the no side varied largely. Actually it can be argued that eg in France, the no side, did to a large extend not vote against an ever closer Europe, but it voted against a “neoliberal” Europe. The party of Chirac being in favour did not really help either, as he was deeply loathed by many. Moreover many of the no sayers lived in the illusion that if they voted no, a new draft could be made, which would be more socialist in tendency. A pipe dream at best if you ask me. Anyway, these Referendums were not about the EU as such but about the specific treaty. In Ireland for example a key argument of the no side was that voting against the treaty does not mean one has to be oposed to the EU as such. As the Lisbon treaty is a watered down compromise of the watered down Constitutional treaty which was a watered down version of the Convent proposal which never made anyone enthusiastic, its not surprising that the no side managed a negative result in 3 out of 6 cases.

    I tend to think also that these vast and complex things always are rather easy to be handled by no sides. There will always be aspects that someone does not like. Everony no matter what his opinions are, will find something he does not like about it. Its not possible in a different way. So the yes side has a harder game in general I think. Its different to a single issue referendum. You can be in favour of it or against. There are less chances of finding arguments that may attract each and everyone.

  7. Slartibartfas: I think we disagree in what ‘good propaganda’ is. According to me, good propaganda needs to convince, that is its sole objective. This is usually better done by appealing to emotions rather than rational arguments. Check otherwise the TV screen and tell me how much sensible argumentation you find.

    “In my opinion we do not lack EU haters on one side and EU self glorifying material on the other”.

    Here I think you give a hint about what is wrong with the pro-EU propaganda. Self glorifying material is simply boring for the general public. At best it will leave the people indifferent and at the worst case it will make them angry. On the contrary, scary stuff is much better.

    Just remember what made the Irish finally vote for YES. Was it sensible argumentation? I don’t think so. It was fear.

  8. Personally I am opposed to propaganda in the narrow sense which is just there to “convince” no matter what that needs.

    The Irish voted yes for several reasons, economic fear was only one aspect. Another one was certainly also that those in favour of the treaty were more motivated to turn up at the polls than last time, since they knew that it can’t taken for granted that the yes side wins.

    Another argument is quite interesting and its a bit ironic as well. The Irish people resented being threatened by some politicians across Europe if they don’t vote yes. This time that had the result that most bit their lips, but on the other side the UKIP thought it has to foster the no side in Ireland and campaigned quite substantially. It seems if Irish people resent something more than being told by “Europe” how to vote, it is being told by British how to vote.

    What you suggested that one should use more scare tactics on the pro European side (on the EU sceptic side, its pretty commonly used already anyway) is indeed very cynic. I think if you overdo it with this kind of cynism, especially if you are at power, you may do more harm than good. All the scare tales will fall back to you eventually if you are the one at power.

  9. The blog started with a blast against biased newspaper articles. Interesting to compare with what I read in my daily newspapers, here in France, and occasionally in Germany and Spain.

    First, it seems that News items are reserved for straight news reporting; and Comment is clearly signalled as such. NB there was a news item this last week which I haven’t seen reported in online UK newspapers. This concerned an EU-sponsored survey of the problems that both retailers and customers have in trying to do business between countries in the Single Market (I can often find something for sale in another country but can’t buy because of VAT, payment, or some other problem). Surely this would be of interest to UK readers? Bias (ie they’re doing something useful), negigence, lack of EU-based reporters, or what?

    Second, there are regular news items (often just short clips); comment is rarer and can be heavily biased – as one expects of a comments column. But there is often a more open debate, where both sides (or more!) are offered.

    Of course, the online blogs area gets a more mixed presentation – and plenty of reader posts, including from me.

    Propoganda can be failure to report or comment (good or bad news) as much as actual reporting/commentary.

  10. French Derek – on your final point, very much so. See Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (one of the few Chomsky books I’ve managed to read cover to cover…), in particular the propaganda model – only replace anti-communism with euroscepticism as a driving force, and we may be getting somewhere.

    I’ve been vaguely planning a post on this (applying the propaganda model to British EU reporting) for the last couple of weeks – especially with this ongoing nonsense about an “EU president” that the British press now seems obsessed with – but have been ridiculously busy of late.

  11. Slartibartfas: Your view is more or less the one used by the EU: propaganda must not be aimed to ‘convince’ but to ‘educate’. The result is that no one understands or cares about how the EU works. If in some instances the population backs the EU it is certainly because they are aware of the economic benefits the membership entails, not due to the EU’s communication.

    “All the scare tales will fall back to you eventually if you are the one at power”

    This sounds more like an unsupported popular myth in the same vein as ‘justice always prevails’, etc.

    french Derek: “Propoganda can be failure to report or comment (good or bad news) as much as actual reporting/commentary”

    Maybe it can be considered as such. Personally I think the lack of reporting is due to lack of interest. Just take the case of the Swedish press. Svenska Dagbladet, the last newspaper that had a correspondent in Brussels, axed the post shortly before the start of the Swedish EU Presidency.

  12. Nicolas: “lack of reporting is due to lack of interest”; agreed – but lack of interest on who’s part? A poorly informed readership, or an uninterested owner, perhaps?

    Wouldn’t a “Europe” correspondant (as, eg, at the BBC) be a more useful post, for both readership and editorial spread? Surely journalism is (should be) more about digging out the real news/stories than passively sending in re-worked press handouts? (not that I accuse Svenska Dagsbladet staff of that).

  13. @nicolas

    Maybe I am only a helpless naive idealist, but maybe scare tactics, disinformation, emotionalisation, populism etc are really more successful than somewhat rational at least decently balanced information. (I am not saying the EUs PR is the latter, but its IMHO closer to the latter than the former) But in the end I really could not sleep with such a huge amount of cynism in my life. Maybe thats why I am not a politician nor a PR guy.

    But I may only mention that in Austria a party who did a pretty good job at being rational, fair in argumentation and reflected rather than adressing the gut feeling, managed to get 10% of the votes in national elections. Not a huge amount, but more than you could expect from a party which campaigns had a bit of an academic podium discussion feeling.

    PS:
    Doesn’t it come down to in the end what oneself honestly believes is the better choice? And I am talking about a rational opinion not a gut feeling.

  14. PS:
    Two Austrain newspapers have a correspondant in Brussels and a third one is trying to improve its coverage currently.