‘We have together to fight the danger of a new Euroscepticism …Today’s nationalism is often not a positive feeling of pride of one’s own identity, but a negative feeling of apprehension of the others … The biggest enemy of Europe today is fear. Fear leads to egoism, egoism leads to nationalism, and nationalism leads to war. Our Union is born out of a will to cooperate, to reconcile and to act in solidarity.’
The implication of this argument is that War in Europe is a crazed monster straining to spring back into deadly action, but (happily for us) it is tied down tight like Gulliver in Lilliput by myriad strings of EU regulations, directives and treaties, all underpinned by amicable tax-free lunches in smart Brussels restaurants.
There is something to be said for this way of looking at European history. Wikipedia helpfully lists conflicts in Europe going back to 1193 BC. Large wars, small wars, wars we have forgotten, and wars we’ve never heard of. My favourite is the Kettle War in 1784, a modest conflict between the Republic of the Seven Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire in which one of the few shots fired hit a soup kettle. But many of these conflicts and wars spread local ruin. When we weren’t fighting in Europe we were busy fighting and conquering around the planet. As Europe’s warring centuries dragged on, new technology made warfare far more deadly and widespread. The two World Wars, both started in Europe by Europeans, together claimed something like 100 million lives.
Then along comes the idea of ‘European union’, firmly supported by the United States which itself had lost 500,000 people in trying to stop Europeans fighting. At long last peace breaks out! For over 60 years the countries now comprising today’s European Union have managed to avoid fighting each other. This has freed up huge resources for investment, delivering economic growth and purposeful reconciliation on a scale far surpassing anything ever seen on Earth.
If you’re a European citizen or even a non-European citizen, what’s not to like about this new balmy state of affairs? OK, you might well point out that it’s not all perfect. But surely it is at the very least far better than what went on previously, and so worthy of unwavering support?
Maybe. Maybe not. Broadly speaking, the idea of ‘Euroscepticism’ boils down to the proposition that we can reasonably expect to capture the key benefits ascribed to the EU (peace and prosperity) without having anything like the intricate (and, some say, oppressive) institutional and legal superstructure that comes with it.
Different camps of Eurosceptics exist. Under one taxonomy, ‘hard’ Eurosceptics oppose the very idea of the European Union in its current form. By contrast ‘soft’ Eurosceptics accept (perhaps reluctantly) the general framework, but insist on less EU-level decision-making in favour of a much greater role for member states.
People are Eurosceptic for many different reasons. As a matter of principle they may dislike the way national sovereignty and democracy are qualified by law-making powers at the EU level. They may accept the theory but argue that in practice it goes too far, leading to a weird new ‘post-democratic’ polity in which substantive democratic control of policy-making seeps away into unaccountable Brussels processes. They may say that whatever the blandishments of ‘ever-closer union’, EU policies and structures necessarily create dangerous problems (such as the accumulating financial – and moral – contradictions in trying to keep the eurozone afloat).
Then there are ‘country-specific’ Eurosceptics. Some don’t care whether other countries join in some sort of Union – indeed, they may welcome it – but just do not want their country to be in it. This is the core position of the UK Independence Party. Over in Poland the Law and Justice party argues that today’s European ‘progressive’ norms were created without Poland’s free participation – why should Poland be bound by them?
Many UK and other diplomats comprise another category of Eurosceptics: people who work with or within EU structures and are appalled at the waste and dysfunctionality they find. What normal person emerging from the Schuman Metro station in the heart of Euro-Brussels stands unmoved on beholding the Commission building shrouded by the latest gigantically expensive banner proclaiming European glory, such as the European Year of Volunteering (2011), the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations (2012), and (incoming in 2014) the European Year of The Brain.
This bombastic yet insecure propaganda is reminiscent of Ceausescu’s communist Romania. It exists only because a tiny, invisible and unaccountable plump elite of Europeans have managed to organise colossal sums of public money to spend on their pet projects. Meanwhile down in Greece that same elite demands ruthless public spending cuts, to the point of driving some people to suicide. Something really is not right here.
For all shades of Eurosceptics the most annoying criticism they face is that they are ‘anti-European’. They aren’t against ‘Europe’, or indeed sensible, light-touch ways to share sovereignty and policies. They are against the EU in its current form as the way of achieving agreed common goals.
The problem for Eurosceptics does not lie in finding plenty wrong with the EU as currently constituted. That’s like shooting fat lazy fish in a barrel. Rather it is identifying how best to move from where we are now to somewhere both significantly different and reliably stable and satisfactory, then selling that policy to voters.
Take the UK. The Conservative Party talked the Eurosceptic talk in opposition and used its return to government in 2010 quickly to push through an ‘enough EU integration is enough’ law providing for a UK referendum on any further transfer of powers to Brussels. That accomplished, Conservative Ministers have been working hard to use EU arrangements to further UK political and economic targets, including a major EU/South Korea trade arrangement. As UK Foreign Secretary William Hague put it in October 2011: ‘EU procedures can be cumbersome, slow and bureaucratic, but the upside is when you’ve negotiated them [sanctions against the Syrian regime] 95 per cent of the sales of crude oil are stopped because 27 nations together act on that.’
However, the eurozone reels. London faces fine judgements. On the one hand, the disarray in the eurozone bears out London’s annoyingly clever warnings that too much integration is unwise or unworkable. Maybe events themselves will create such a crisis that the EU will have to change into something more suited to today’s conditions, namely lighter and more flexible structures which lay down binding general principles but not much more. Hurrah.
On the other hand, it might go quite a different way. The eurozone is unlikely to survive without far tighter central economic policy coordination at the expense of national policy-making. That (if it works) is likely to spill over into stern but unacceptable demands on non-eurozone EU countries to harmonise their tax and other policy instruments with eurozone standards. Meanwhile if the eurozone crumbles, the consequences for the UK economy and for world trade generally will be grim. So is it better to keep the current arrangements staggering along (including by paying large sums of money via the IMF to support eurozone so-called reforms) in the hope that they somehow survive?
London also has to brood on the fact that precisely because the UK is in the EU and seen as a relatively sane member of that eccentric grouping, it acts as a powerful gateway for US, Asian and Middle East investors and manufacturers. If the UK left or somehow got detached from its European partners, how much of that money might shrug and find another route into the European family?
Back to Herman Van Rompuy: ‘In every member state, there are people who believe their country can survive alone in the globalised world (sic). It is more than an illusion: it is a lie.’
Sorry, but that’s a lie too. There are 193 UN member states and 166 of them survive ‘alone’ without too much trouble. The UK is a powerful force in the world economy and would survive outside the EU. It might well be poorer in some important respects, but it would regain its own independent voice in world trade and many other fora and have all sorts of new policy options.
Which is better? To be a fat serf or a skinny freeman? To be Illinois? Or Canada? Or best of all, to avoid for a few more years the ghastly decision?