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.