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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Nosemonkey interviewed: On euroscepticism

Forgot all about this, as the interview was originally conducted back in October, but it’s in the latest issue of Shift Mag, which focusses on Euroscepticism. Have a gander at the whole lot here or, below the fold, check out my responses to the following:

1. In the blog nosemonkey, you explain your political views. How have you passed from being a small -“C” conservative and entirely anti-EU to a small -“L” liberal and largely pro-EU?

2.According to you, what are the main shortcomings of the eurosceptic group?

3. Do you think eurosceptics could weigh up in EU decisions if people took them more seriously?

4. Five good reasons to be Eurosceptic and Five good reasons to be Pro- European in Europe today?

5. With the adhesion request of Island, with the “NO-YES” referendum in Ireland, a new phenomenon seems to emerge: “EUR-OPPORTUNISM”. Will it be the strongest cement of European Union for the future? And maybe the sworn enemy of Europe as identity ? What’s your opinion?

6. In your blog, you say you are more in favour of the idea of the EU than the current reality. Can you explain?

7. How can the EU get more legitimacy amongst EU citizens?

Please note, these answers were given a few months ago now, so my views may well have changed… I’ve highlighted a few key points in bold on a quick skim through, though – it’s a long one. The last bit in particular, though, is worth a read, if I do say so myself…

1. In the blog nosemonkey, you explain your political views. How have you passed from being a small -“C” conservative and entirely anti-EU to a small -“L” liberal and largely pro-EU?

It was pretty much down to studying more about what the EU actually does (about which the vast majority of Europeans really have no idea). Once I knew a bit more of the realities, I suddenly started to realise that a lot of my eurosceptic assumptions were based on misunderstandings and ideological prejudice.

This in turn led me to start questioning much of what I was reading in the press about the EU. I had a naive belief in the press – that it’s the job of the press to be critical of ALL political institutions (that’s why it’s called the Fourth Estate, after all), and that if the EU was criticised for pretty much everything it does, that was because it deserved that criticism.

But once I started to learn a little more about the EU, I started to realise that much of what it was being criticised for was not the fault of the EU itself – and in a surprising number of cases nothing to do with the EU at all. Hell, the way the EU’s reported in the UK, in 99% of cases it’s not even clear what’s meant by “the EU” – it can be the Commission, the Council, Parliament, individual MEPs, individual Commissioners, random functionaries, and sometimes even people or organisations that have nothing to do with the EU (I’ve seen papers prepared by lobbying organisations reported as “EU plans” before they’ve even been considered by the Commission, let alone adopted; I’ve seen Council of Europe institutions referred to as if they were part of the EU structure).

This in turn showed up the ignorance of the British press and most British commentators. Which in turn led me to question many of the “facts” that I had picked up over the years that had led me to be anti-EU. If a news organisation is getting the basics wrong – referring to the European Court of Human Rights as “EU judges”, as the Press Association did earlier this year, for example – you have to question the reliability of its coverage on pretty much everything, as well as the opinions of its reporters and columnists.

The shift from conservative to liberal was pretty much entirely due to going to university and suddenly meeting a bunch of people from different backgrounds after a childhood spent entirely in the sheltered world of the middle-ranking middle class, where small-“c” conservatism (with a touch of classical, 19th century style liberalism thrown in) comes as naturally as breathing. If you only stick with one kind of person from one kind of background, you’re likely to adopt their ideology. Closed mindsets and lack of awareness of other opinions (or, to be precise, the *reasons* for other opinions) can only lead to misunderstandings, hostility and conflict.

2. According to you, what are the main shortcomings of the eurosceptic group?

If you approach anything from the standpoint of not trusting it, you’re far more likely to spot problems – but also to blow those problems out of proportion.

The classic train of thought when I was anti-EU – and of many eurosceptics today – was “EU project X works badly, EU directive Y is unnecessary to be legislated at an EU level, and evidence of corruption has been uncovered at EU institution Z – therefore the EU is a bad thing”. All of which initial observations may well be true – but when you start to be suspicious, you tend to look for connections and patterns that simply aren’t there, and can easily come to false conclusions.

Just because X, Y and Z are all bad things doesn’t mean that the EU as a whole is bad – and in any case ignores A, B, C, D, E (and so on), which may work perfectly. But you rarely hear about things that work perfectly – especially when it comes to the EU, and especially in the UK. Good news is not news – only bad news is worth reporting, and only bad news stands out. Plus – when you’re of an anti-EU mindset – any good news about an EU project can instantly be dismissed as propaganda.

So, the first big problem is false logic. Just because X, Y and Z are bad doesn’t mean that everything is. And just because you only hear about bad things doesn’t mean that everything’s bad. Is the Common Fisheries Policy rubbish? Yes. That doesn’t mean that EU legislation to push down mobile phone charges or allow passport-free travel is also rubbish. And if you don’t know 90% of what it is that the EU does, you can’t come to a sensible conclusion about its worth based on what you *do* know.

In other words, everything needs context. As an example, the UK’s contribution to the EU budget is c.£4-9bn (net) per annum – which sounds like a vast amount of money if you work out that a teacher’s salary is c.£25,000 a year (it’s around 160-360,000 teachers), until you put it into a more appropriate context of the entire UK national budget and see that in 2006-7 the UK spent £31bn on paying off the interest on the national debt (that’s 1,240,000 teachers); the European Commission employing c.35,000 staff likewise sounds like a lot, until you see that the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions employs c.180,000 people.

The second major problem – which is a significant part of the reason that I was driven away from being eurosceptic – is that anti-EU groups and commentators tend to repeat misinformation and misinterpretations as if they were objective fact. The classic is the claim that “80% of laws come from the EU” – a claim that has been repeated so often now that many people (even non-eurosceptics) have started to assume that it’s true. I investigated this claim in detail on the blog just before the European Elections back in the summer (http://www.jcm.org.uk/blog/?p=2230), and found it to be absolute rubbish – as are most claims about the EU’s influence. The real figure for most EU member states is somewhere in the region of 10-20% of all legislation *and* regulations – and quite often lower.

There’s two possible reasons why eurosceptic campaigners would repeat the 80% claim (and the many other false claims like it):

1) They genuinely believe that it’s true – in which case they haven’t done their research (because if they had they’d realise it was false), and if they haven’t done their research on this, what else haven’t they done their research on? They can’t be trusted.

2) They know that it’s false, but repeat it anyway to gain support. In which case they’re liars and can’t be trusted.

The third major problem is the tendency to preach to the converted – often in incredibly hyperbolic terms. Claims that the Lisbon Treaty will end national sovereignty or Irish neutrality or restrict individual freedoms are objective nonsense – but play well to that part of the population that are convinced that the EU is evil.

Claims that the EU is working purely for the good of vast corporate/capitalist/neoliberal economic interests at the expense of the people (if you’re a left-wing eurosceptic) or that it’s working to create a Europe-wide socialist state and undermining business with vast quantities of restrictive employment laws (if you’re a right-wing eurosceptic) are likewise both quite obviously stupid if you look at the big picture – but it suits eurosceptic campaigners to narrow the focus to single issues, and then blow those single issues out of proportion to stir up the passions of their supporters.

It’s understandable why anti-EU campaigners do this – the vast majority of what the EU does is tedious, boring bureaucracy on hugely unexciting regulatory issues that it’s very hard to get passionate about. But it’s both dishonest and serves to undermine the legitimacy of the anti-EU cause in the eyes of that part of the population that hasn’t yet made up its mind. When eurosceptics make wild, hyperbolic claims, it’s also all to easy for their opponents to write them off as lunatics and extremists. The vast majority of eurosceptics are neither – but the lunatics and extremists tend to shout the loudest, and discredit the entire cause in the process.

3. Do you think eurosceptics could weigh up in EU decisions if people took them more seriously?


If eurosceptics were actually sceptical, they could and would be taken seriously – because any new political project (and 50 years is still very new) needs constructive criticism in order to improve itself. The trouble is, most eurosceptics are not sceptical – they’re cynical.

They assume the worst – where to be sceptical should, strictly speaking, simply mean that they are unwilling to take anything at face value. No one should take anything at face value. Everyone should be sceptical of any political institution and any political movement – if there’s one thing that 20th century European history should have taught us, it’s to not trust authority and to always hold politicians and political movement in deep suspicion. But there’s a major, major difference between being sceptical/suspicious and being cynical/hostile.

The former is constructive and helpful – and can be advantageous to both sides, as critical opponents can water down the negative things that they have identified while positive supporters can hopefully take the criticism on board and improve what they are trying to do.

The latter helps no one, and only breeds resentment on both sides.

An example I like to use is the republican movement in Northern Ireland – while the IRA were blowing people up and refusing to engage constructively, the republicans gained no concessions and actually made life even more unpleasant for their supporters; now that they’re engaging constructively, they’re gaining concessions and making life nicer for everyone – they’re unlikely to gain full independence, as they’d like, but that’s only because they’ve not got enough support. Same with the anti-EU groups – if they engaged constructively then they’d win some concessions and reforms that may make the situation they dislike more bearable; they won’t achieve the abolition of or withdrawal from the EU simply because they haven’t got enough support.

4. Five good reasons to be Eurosceptic and Five good reasons to be Pro- European in Europe today?

Eurosceptic:

1. The EU is flawed.
2. The EU is less democratic than many would like.
3. The EU is remote from the people, and often seems deliberately so.
4. Parts of the EU organisational structure are secretive and protective of their own interests.
5. There is some evidence of corruption in *some* parts of the EU’s organisation.

Pro-EU:

1. The ideal of bringing people together for mutual benefit is a fundamentally good one.
2. The EU does aid intra-European trade
3. The EU has eased intra-European travel.
4. The EU has helped break down barriers and increase understandings and friendships between nations and the people of those nations
5. The EU allows for regular, multi-level contact between the governments and state machinery of every member state in an absolutely unprecedented manner, allowing for a level of interaction that is entirely impossible using traditional methods of international diplomacy – used properly this can be an incredibly powerful, beneficial tool for all parties.

5. With the adhesion request of Island, with the “NO-YES” referendum in Ireland, a new phenomenon seems to emerge: “EUR-OPPORTUNISM”. Will it be the strongest cement of European Union for the future? And maybe the sworn enemy of Europe as identity ? What’s your opinion?

I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. Numerous member states have (mostly privately, but sometimes publicly if it’ll help their electoral chances at home – see Maggie Thatcher’s famous “No, no no!”) threatened the veto to get their own way. It’s a hang-over from traditional diplomacy, and will remain as long as national vetoes are part of the EU’s workings. I also don’t think they hamper European identity – they may help to bolster national identity in the country where the veto is being threatened, but if anything they enhance a European identity among other member states – be it, with the Lisbon Treaty, the frustration of having to wait until Ireland/the Czech Republic.

6. In your blog, you say you are more in favour of the idea of the EU than the current reality. Can you explain?

The simple version is that I think that a regular, structured mechanism for international cooperation and economic harmonisation – which is what the EU is at its most fundamental level – can be hugely beneficial to everyone involved. But some of the mechanisms that are in place in the way the EU currently works (notably the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries policies) are hugely inefficient. Likewise, for the EU to be truly effective, it needs to be very careful in choosing which areas it operates in.

This is what the subsidiarity principle is all about – finding the most effective ways of legislating and regulating. Currently, there are various areas that fall under the EU’s remit that I feel would be better dealt with at more local levels (be they national or regional or whatever), and other areas that are currently not EU competences that would be better dealt with at an EU level. At the same time, the current one-size-fits-all approach is not working. More integrationist countries are being held back by more reluctant member states. Aspiring members are being held back by current members worried about the implications for immigration, the economy, voting weights etc. No one member state should be able to hold the EU to ransom by threatening to veto something that the other 26 want to do.

Likewise, no one country should be able to be forced to implement major changes that it isn’t happy with. The problem of the Constitution and of the Lisbon Treaty was the inflexibility of the EU model that requires unanimous agreement between all member states – the EU needs to be flexible to survive, because rigid things tend to shatter into pieces if they come under too much pressure.

7. How can the EU get more legitimacy amongst EU citizens?

The EU is insanely complicated, much of what it does is insanely boring, and the majority of what it does is draw up relatively minor rules and regulations on very specific, usually trade-related issues that have only a very minor impact on people’s daily lives (although, as a whole, all of these tiny rules and regulations add up to a significant impact, it’s through an unnoticeable drip-drip-drip).

This makes getting the people’s support and maintaining their good-will very difficult – because getting them interested enough to pay attention to the EU at all is very difficult when so much of what it does seems so irrelevant. This gives anti-EU groups the perfect opportunity to spread disinformation (either deliberately or accidentally, as noted above).

It is vital that the people feel like they are involved if the EU project is going to succeed. At the moment, the working methods and structure of the EU are too impenetrable for the layman – the Lisbon Treaty being the perfect example of something that it’s impossible for the man in the street to understand. They need to be simplified and made more transparent. This means that the EU needs some fairly fundamental reform.

However, I no longer especially buy in to the idea that the EU has a “democratic deficit”, as much of what the EU does is (to over-simplify) just a continental version of the World Trade Organisation – and no one complains that the WTO needs to be voted for to have legitimacy.

This idea is largely due to a misunderstanding of what it is that the EU is, does, and is for. On those latter two points, I genuinely don’t think that anyone knows any more. It has evolved far beyond the relatively simple trading partnership that it began as back in the 50s. What it is now is unique and unprecedented – either an economic organisation with political elements or a full-on quasi-governmental power, depending on who you ask.

This makes explaining and describing what it is in a clear and impartial way incredibly difficult – and ensures that everyone has conflicting opinions about what the EU should be doing on any given issue. The same is true of the governments of the member states – it’s increasingly obvious that different countries want different things from EU membership, but no one really knows precisely who wants what or how to keep everyone happy.

And so we end up with a decade’s worth of negotiations that end up with the poor compromise agreement that is the Lisbon Treaty – a treaty that no one is truly happy with, but that is the best we can get through the current set-up. (Hence my wanting the EU to drop the one-size-fits-all approach and start to be a little more flexible.)

So, to really get the people on board and to gain more legitimacy for the EU as a whole, they need to be more involved. Not necessarily through elections or referenda, but the people need to be asked what it is they want from the EU – just as the various governments of the member states really need to have that fundamental discussion: what is the EU for? This is the big question that should have been discussed during the debates about reform that have been going on for well over a decade. It’s the elephant in the room that is causing all the problems that we’ve seen over the last few years – both in terms of getting agreements on the various new treaties and plans of action (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty and the Lisbon Agenda), and in terms of the ongoing discussions about future enlargement.

If the people are asked “what is the EU for?” then the governments of the member states will be able to clarify what it is that *they* want from the EU, and in future rounds of negotiations for future reforms, we may finally be able to come up with something that leaves everyone happy, rather than the Lisbon Treaty situation we’re now in where everyone’s a little bit annoyed. (Even if, as hardly anyone’s read – let alone understood – the treaty, hardly anyone really knows quite why…)

12 Comments

  1. “Treaty of Rome! Treaty of Rome!”

    Christ, that seems a lifetime ago.

  2. The Treaty of Rome rant still (partially) stands – it *did* massively favour France. Not as much as the CAP, perhaps, but still…

  3. “Just because X, Y and Z are all bad things doesn’t mean that the EU as a whole is bad”

    IMO there is a simpler way to highlight the ridiculousness of that attitude. What if X is the NHS, Y is the ID card scheme, and Z is the Lords in the wake of Cash for Honours? The typical right-Eurosceptic will scoff at all of these, but will they conclude that *Britain* is unnecessary and inefficient and evil and has to be dissolved?…

  4. The distribution (large land-owners get most, irrespective of production methods) of the CAP is certainly outdated and should be reformed. But the argument commonly raised in the UK media against it, about shutting out poor African farmers and such, is just bunk. Those who would benefit from eliminating the CAP would be the industrial producers of Brazil and Argentina, not African subsistence farmers. Also, for both environmental (length of transport of food) and security of supply reasons, I’d prefer if the EU maintains self-supply there, not to mention the maintenance of rural communities.

    I don’t know how much the CAP favours France today, but I note that many of the new member states, above all Romania and Poland, have a special interest in it.

  5. Well done, Nosemonkey. I doubt your responses went down well with the readership of Shift Mag. They – and you – talk always of Eurosceptics: I prefer to talk of Europhobics – because that’s what most of them are. I count myself as EU-sceptic but an EU supporter nonetheless. I want change and improvement, not destruction.

    In terms of reasons in support of the EU I would have extended your item 4 to include (necessarily) that this increased, and tighter, understanding and co-operation has meant peaceful stability between member nations for over 50 years now. That was the founding aim and it is still an attraction to would-be member nations’ politicians. Economic and social co-operation is stronger than any military agreement (as history details).

  6. French Derek, should we scrap NATO?

    Nosemonkey, a question if I may. You were asked about european identity and you answered. But what is european identity? Or rather what do you mean by it, because I reckon many people have many different definitions of it?

  7. Good responses Nosemonkey.

    In regards to the Lisbon treaty I just wanted to add, that I think it is premature to judge it already. Let’s talk about it in 5 years and maybe again in 10 years. The EU is to a substantial regard “trial and error” and we might have to wait and see how all the details will finally work out in reality. In this regard I don’t understand how respected papers can talk alraedy now of a failure of the Lisbon treaty or make fun of the obvious current chaos between certain institutional actors. … I mean what to do the expect? Are they that naive to believe that if there were a similar primary law reform in the US to step into power, that after the night is over, everyone knows what everyone does and how the powers all work out and interact with those of others? If you read the history books of the Confederation you start realizing that even though the EU has pretty weak institutions, its like the sweetest heaven compared to the drama that was played within the Confederation.

    To make it short: The Lisbon treaty might be a failure, but equally it could be a surprising success. Most likely its just more of the same… just different.

  8. DoDo – You’re probably right on the arguments about subsistence farmers. I keep seeing those brought up, and haven’t looked into them properly yet. Another for the to do list…

    On France’s share of CAP payments, see this PDF report. Estimates normally range from c.18-22% of the total CAP budget – but always agree that it’s more than any other member state. Considering the CAP accounts for 48% of the EU’s spending, France does pretty well out of the deal.

    French Derek – I only left out the peace argument because it always seems to be so contentious for the eurosceptics, who always put it more down to NATO, the Soviet threat, or whatever. (Which is odd, when you think about it, because the eurosceptics who complain about this argument tend to be on the right – you’d think they’d be happy for any evidence that trade can lead to peace, as that’s long been one of the key arguments of the free traders…)

    mirakulous – Agreed entirely. Dozens and dozens of definitions. Hell, if I knew what I meant by “European identity” then the strapline of this blog wouldn’t be “in search of a European identity”…

    Here’s a few posts on the subject that sort of cover it, though – out of scores I’ve written over the years: National identity vs European identity ; On the need for an external threat to foster a sense of identity ; Towards a European identity ; Europe as a coherent entity

    Slartibartfas – Agreed entirely on it being too early to judge Lisbon. I’ve been saying for years that it’s going to be years after ratification before we know what it really means, because it’s so damned vague it’s mostly going to be decided by the courts.

    I do, however, think that Lisbon is a failure – primarily because it wasn’t clear enough, but also because it doesn’t solve many of the problems that it was meant to solve – and can’t, no matter how it is interpreted over the coming years. Hence this rant after the first Irish referendum (among others). As to the dire warnings of instantaneous change after ratification, did you see this post? You may find it amusing…

  9. Slatribartfas – just noticed, you actually commented on the last post I linked there, so I guess we can safely assume that you saw it… Heh!

  10. EU Treaties by rule have to be vague. A clear one, would be utopic. From there its not far to the wet dreams of federalists or EU sceptics either. ;)

    Principally there exists a rule of thumb however. If there is a lack of clarity in the treaties or in legislation, it more often than not benefits the supranational part of the Union. Simply because its the supranational part of the EU which interprets the law in last instance, ie the ECJ. Of course someone has to sue about something in first place however. One can like that or not, but it occurred often that way in the past.

    My own two cents on Lisbon. The key aspects of it are a substantial strengthening of the EP, something which will be seen in its full effect just over the years (and might change how the EU works substantially), the introduction of majority voting in most areas over the next years, the enlargement of the scope of the ECJ as well as the creation of easier access of EU citizens to the court. Other changes that could have potential influence, but may not, are the citizens petition right and the new foreign policy institutions including Lady Ashtons office and the EEAS. Last but not least a big question mark is still the European Council and its president, it could lead to a restrengthening of the realist aspect of the Union, ie of the Governments but paradoxically make the Council also less intergovernmental. The President could develop into a similar positions the Commission President as de facto pseudo superior of the institution, even though thats a pretty unlikely extreme scenario. (Some less extreme scenarios are however not to be ruled out)

    I think its easy to see why we have to wait until we can say anything of certainty. The peoples of the EU are the last big question mark. Without them, a more democratic EU will remain an illusion. But thats exactly the point, a better EU, in my opinion, needs better democratic control but at the same time a more efficient council.

  11. Great interview, Nosemonkey. Read it when the magazine popped into the office a couple of weeks ago.

  12. Wow, these are great responses.

    I get frustrated with my own pro-Europeanism sometimes in that I’m constantly wielding it like a battering ram against the (usually same tired ) Eurosceptic arguments one hears all the time in Britain (there I’ve done it again).

    My position is more nuanced than that, but in a country where the EU is simply not debated properly you get no choice. It’s the debating equivalent of the iron fist or you get drowned beneath the stomping feet of a never ending battalion of British Eurosceptics who have usually done very little research on the institution.

    The BBC is a case in point. Never do we get a policy discussed on its own merits (is it a good policy or bad? Can it be improved etc). Instead the beeb pitches a pro European to argue for the policy (er Pro Europeans can be against EU policies too BBC) and, usually, a swivel eyed Eurosceptic to argue for leaving the EU altogether because it is a monolith full of meddling Eurocrats. Thus the issue gets completely ignored and we’re back to the barricades again.

    Sigh.

    Great to see someone out there reflecting my viewpoint though. Keep it up.