Simon Usherwood / Dec 2015
In true Eurotrash style, I’m writing this as I fly to Italy, where I’m attending a workshop on studying the EU. The event, jointly run by the European University Institute and the College of Europe, is looking to consider how the rise of euroscepticism challenges the way we study and teach about the Union. Looking at the names on the list of speakers, there’s lots of potential for a great debate.
But why should you care about my travel plans or my taking part in another talking shop?
Having worked on the study of euroscepticism for longer than I can to remember – let’s just say I knew UKIP before they were big – I have always been struck by the lack of interest in the subject in European circles. Indeed, it was one of the things that got me interested in it in the first place.
Partly, this has been down to plan ignorance of the existence of people and organisations that dislike what the EU is or does: in the Brussels bubble, sceptics lacked voice, profile or consequence for a very long time. Their frequent rejection of the EU also didn’t lend itself to getting stuck into making names for themselves: The constructive critique of the likes of former MEP Jens-Peter Bonde have been very much the exception.
Partly, however, it has been due to a feeling that Eurosceptics are simply wrong and that they don’t deserve a hearing. If they chose not to play by the rules of the game, then that’s their problem and there’s no good reason to make further accommodations.
It’s important to understand why this attitude exists, because it springs from the nature of the European system and its operation. At a basic level, the EU is a system of consensus-building, bringing together different political actors – individuals, groups, parties, interests, countries – to find mutual usefully outputs. The entire architecture of the system is designed to help foster interaction, coalition-building, compromise and package deals. It’s large, entangled and involved.
It’s also a remarkably successful system. Consider all the grumbles that one encounters – in Brussels and elsewhere – about the complexity and the grinding nature of it all and we’d be surprised that it achieves anything at all. And yet there is a steady stream of policy outputs and political consensuses. OK, these might not always be successful or deal with all the issues they could or should, but the breadth and depth of what is achieved is a testament to the value of the system.
But that success also comes with a price. Precisely it has been able to find ways forward in building very broad compromises and consensuses, there has been a tendency to decide that the further compromise needed to bring everyone on board is a step too far. If one considers that ‘eurosceptics’ are not themselves any kind of coherent group, then that unwillingness is even more understandable: a concession in any given direction is liable to make the deal less acceptable to someone else.
The classic example of this came in the Constitutional Convention, where Giscard d’Estaing was able to produce a text that commanded the support of almost the entire Convention. A moment’s reflection will remind us of what an achievement that was, whatever we might think of the text itself. However, there was a small number of sceptics who refused to sign, unless they would also have submitted an alternative text, which Giscard accepted to do. You might well not have heard of that second text, and you certainly won’t find evidence of it being discussed beyond the Convention. Another opportunity missed.
That egregious example has been repeated time and again, and for a long time it didn’t really matter: the system trundled on and most people were happy enough.
That’s not true now.
Today, a lot more people are unhappy with what the Union is and does and are finding, just like Eurosceptics, the system doesn’t know how to deal with them, or even whether to deal with them. To listen to a State of the EU address, or to read the conclusions of a European Council is to enter a strange world, parallel to the one that everyone else seems to be living in, a world where there are some niggles, but nothing that can’t be sorted by a bit more integration or centralisation.
Ignoring critical voices doesn’t make them go away, it only pushes them to one side, where they can only accumulate. It’s a natural tendency of people to hope that problems will just go away or sort themselves out. But this is to forget how the process itself is structured to continue generating dissatisfaction: not everyone can be a winner all the time. A helpful analogy is the washing-up: even if are very careful about what and how you eat, at some point you’re going to run out of cutlery or crockery if you don’t tackle the pile of stuff teetering next to the sink.
All of this points to the need for the system to change its attitude. That’s not just politicians, but also wider society, including academics, which is why I’m glad I’m going to this event.
That means more engagement with critical groups, to understand and unpack their views and to look for ways to try and bring them back into a process: most Eurosceptics have not yet reached the point of rejecting any form of European cooperation or integration. This doesn’t have to mean accepting all that they say or want, but it does mean acknowledging their legitimate concerns and critiques. The process might have to change, but if it produces something more stable and with wider legitimacy, then that can only be a good thing.