Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 

Why we need to reach out to (some of) the Eurosceptics.

Posted by Jason O on Jan 4, 2011 in European Union, Irish Politics |

Eurosceptics aren’t always wrong. Many of them rightly pointed out that the single currency would be threatened by the fact that it was not the currency of a fiscal union, and guess what? They were right. We were wrong. Yet I still believe in the Euro, and the European Union. See, I don’t subscribe to the hysteria of many of my fellow pro-Europeans that no EU means war. Such is the integration of Europe, war is no longer an option, and therefore no longer a rational excuse to justify further integration.

However, that does not mean that the return to the unhindered nation-state is in our interests either. Aside from the threat of populist politicians looking for short term solutions through protectionism (remember French farmers burning British lamb?) or favouritism for home producers, there is a far greater reason. It is, in short, the fact that we live on Earth.

To our near east, Russia slowly descends into a quasi-fascist state. In the far east, a giant economic power run by a one-party dictatorship is stepping onto the world stage. In the caves of Pakistan, a fundamentalist medieval bigot plots to assault our way of life in the very streets we live in, in London, New York and Madrid, dispatching his minions to throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls because they have the audacity to want to learn how to read. And, as the markets have proven, there are huge economic forces and corporate interests which can completely sweep aside the ability of a nation-state to govern its own affairs in the interests of its people. This is 21st century Earth, where our western values of tolerance, religious freedom, equality, freedom of speech, democratic government, indeed our ability to run our very societies are under assault from all sides.

The nation-state is not obsolete. It is our cultural anchor, what defines us all as people. But if we have learnt anything in these recent months it is that sovereignty means nothing if it cannot deliver the desired outcomes we seek.

We can let the Euro collapse, and with it the European Union as nations scramble to best each other with currency devaluation. We can struggle to hold up our 1945 borders as thin scraps of shelter against the colossal winds that want to subjugate us to their values and interests. As Timothy Garton Ash has said, the 21st century will be an age of giants, and those eurosceptics who oppose European unity have to step up and ask how can we stand fast to our values when even powerful nations like Britain can only afford half an aircraft carrier?

Pro-Europeans need to accept that it is not heresy to criticise the union, or indeed to advocate the repatriation of powers back to the member-states. It is not outrageous to point to the shoddy way the Lisbon treaty was arrived at, or the way EU officials are appointed. There are plenty of proud pro-Europeans who felt soiled by the whole grubby process. But by the same extent, eurosceptics have to remove their blinkers about integration and co-operation, and accept that in a world with nations boasting populations in the hundreds of millions, no matter how passionately you wave your national flag, it simply will not be enough.

I am a European integrationist in my heart. In the same way monarchists can accept that something may look odd on paper, but still feel a loyalty to something that they just know is right, I feel the same way about the European Union. But I believe it is time to reach out, not just to eurosceptics but to the millions of Europeans who are not actively opposed to the EU, but have growing doubts about it.

We have to recognise that Euroscepticism, like pro-Europeanism, is not a single monolith. Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage wish to dismantle the EU. David Cameron does not. In fact, even moderate Eurosceptics do not agree about what sort of EU they wish to see: Is there anyone who really believes that Martin McGuinness and William Hague both have the same vision of Europe? Or what about certain elements of the French Left who have now plucked Euroscepticism down from the shelf like a hooker picking up a cheap pair of tights for her next trick? Does anyone believe that they share the same vision of Europe as a British free-market Eurosceptic?

It’s time to think radical thoughts about what is needed to legitimise the EU in the eyes of that substantial group of Europeans who do not want abolition, but are losing faith in the EU.

What changes should we consider? We can start by recognising that the gross contributor countries like the UK, Germany and the Netherlands do not exist to be  the ATM machines for the rest of Europe. It is surely time for the member states to start reducing the budget and returning money to the contributor nations. This may sound like an extraordinary suggestion, especially coming from a member-state that has benefited enormously from those countries largess. But the reality is that EU spending, and the taxing of British, German and Dutch taxpayers, is now taken for granted by other countries who would not be so easy to tax their own people. It’s not fair on those taxpayers, and it is damaging to the overall project. It is time to agree the principle that additional spending calls by member-states should be accompanied by revenue rising mechanisms that will effect all member states equally.

Secondly, with the exception of France, Denmark and Ireland, who consulted their citizens in votes in 1992, European citizens have never been asked as to whether they wished to be citizens of the European Union. Perhaps it is time now that EU citizenship, which we pro-Europeans have always advocated as an added-value to national citizenship, be just that: A voluntary opt-in (or opt-out) for every citizen of a member-state to make. Sure, the more extreme elements of Euroscepticism will complain that those who opt out will still have to pay for EU membership, but there is nothing new about citizens of a country having pay for laws they do not personally approve of. But the symbolism would be important, giving every European the right to hold or reject joint EU/National citizenship and the rights of travel, voting, living, emergency health-care, etc, that all EU citizens get. It can be done when citizens renew their passports or identity cards, signing a declaration rejecting their joint EU citizenship and the rights and privileges that come with it. Millions of Europeans will. But I suspect hundreds of millions will not, and that in itself will prove to the extremist Eurosceptics that they do not speak as the authentic voice of the people of Europe, because it will be millions of ordinary Europeans making the choice to opt into EU citizenship themselves.

Finally, I’m loath to advocate another referendum, given the Irish experience and the fact that so many people vote on issues that are not on the ballot paper, but we have to confront the reality that European unity must have a democratic mandate, and that the progress to date has never been specifically endorsed by most Europeans. It has not been rejected either, but it is perhaps time now for the countries of the European Union to ask their people to at least endorse where Europe stands today, effectively asking citizens do they wish to remain in today’s European Union. I have no doubt that if Europeans were asked, member-state by member-state, to vote on continued membership, some would vote to leave. I suspect that Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and possibly Britain could decide to leave, and if they do, we should have in place previously negotiated mechanisms to peacefully disenange the counties that decide to exercise that option. It is not that far fetched to believe that even Germany may decide that the European Union is no longer the structure most effective to its needs. I admit, such a day, when 500 million Europeans take to the polls to decide whether “Europe” is a concept worth keeping, would be a heart stopper. But surely it is better for us to control that destiny, and be prepared for the possible outcomes through patient planning, rather than remain in denial until the day mobs storm the Berlaymont. Let there be no mistake: If this union does not confirm the broad consent of its people, it will not stand. It will rot from the ground up, eventually being destroyed by reactionary Eurosceptic governments of the far-left and far-right elected by people who are frustrated that there is no other way to vent their anger. We have to give our people the right to vent their anger and make the call, or else it will be harnessed and utilised by ugly and dangerous forces the likes of which this continent has had far too much experience of in its past. 

5 Comments


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Hugh
Jan 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I love the spirit of this post, but fear the letters would get jumbled in practice. Lawyers will tell you that rights have to be balanced by obligations and that would be a tricky line to draw regarding EU citizenship. Similarly, consider the impossibility of obtaining agreement on when an in/out referendum should take place, even if the idea were accepted in principle.

However, I agree that to avoid the worst the EU needs to stop complaining of being unloved anytime it is criticised, recognise the extent of its predicament and aim to earn the endorsement of its citizens rather than assuming it. Basically, as my wife keeps telling me now that I’m over 50, it’s about time the EU grew up.


 
Eurocentric
Jan 4, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I’m sceptical about further institutional changes or referendums increasing the EU’s legitimacy, simply because the instutitional structure is quite democratic already (though admittedly not perfect), but isn’t being used as well as it might be. Surely the way to reach out to moderate Euroskeptics, and answer the concerns of disillusioned pro-Europeans is to do the hard slog of building up cross-border debate and party links/politics?

The Irish bail-out and decisions over fiscal union measures are great examples. Some Europarties, like the Social democratic PES advocate things like financial transaction tax at the EU level, Eurobonds, etc. – whether they’re good or bad ideas, they are the opposition at the moment (Parliament and Council), and they aren’t being tested, and the EPP (“in power” in the Parliament and Council) are just accepting whatever comes out of EU summits. Meanwhile people in Ireland and Germany talk among themselves while missing the valid points each other have.

It may be a mountain to climb, but promoting cross border debates is necessary (public debates with MEPs from different countries; opinion pieces from MEPs in the media; getting the media to scrutinise national parties’ European links and what they would do, together [instead of the shameful situation where the media just asked MEP candidates during the election what the election was about instead of finding out themselves and grilling candidates on it]). This would draw people (well, more people) into the decision making process, increase the political weight of the EP, and confront people with practical European decisions, rather than the sterile theological question of Europe.


 
Eurocentric
Jan 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm

I’d also agree with Hugh over opting out of citizenship being extremely difficult to impliment in practice. And what about directives, where EU laws are transposed into national law? A lot of rights and duties under EU law would apply to non-citizens as well in any case.


 
Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Jan 5, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I too appreciate the spirit of this post. I like the way this proposal moves beyond the usual citizen bashing seen in political commentary and offers, instead, a creative way to solicit greater participation by a more involved (or at least (self) interested) citizenry. It’s a good start!


 

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