January 21, 2009

The EU and the British Presidency

Sometimes fate plays tricks on people and this can happen to institutions as well. The fact that it is precisely the UK that is taking over the presidency at a time when the EU is facing one of its worst crises ever – if not the very worst – is ironic in a strange way. In the aftermath of the French and Dutch negative votes on the Constitution, the EU would seem to need, if nothing else, a leadership that is sympathetic to the basic goals and values of European integration, yet that is the one thing that the British are not well equipped to provide.

Sometimes fate plays tricks on people and this can happen to institutions as well. The fact that it is precisely the UK that is taking over the presidency at a time when the EU is facing one of its worst crises ever – if not the very worst – is ironic in a strange way. In the aftermath of the French and Dutch negative votes on the Constitution, the EU would seem to need, if nothing else, a leadership that is sympathetic to the basic goals and values of European integration, yet that is the one thing that the British are not well equipped to provide.


György Schöpflin

The EU and the British Presidency

Sometimes fate plays tricks on people and this can happen to institutions as well. The fact that it is precisely the UK that is taking over the presidency at a time when the EU is facing one of its worst crises ever – if not the very worst – is ironic in a strange way. In the aftermath of the French and Dutch negative votes on the Constitution, the EU would seem to need, if nothing else, a leadership that is sympathetic to the basic goals and values of European integration, yet that is the one thing that the British are not well equipped to provide.
There are two ways of looking at this crisis – there is the British way and there is the perspective of those EU member states that continue to believe that integration is a value in itself. In simple terms, while Great Britain may have had a moderate commitment to Europe 30 years ago – two-thirds of the population voted in favour of EU membership (then the Common Market) in the 1975 referendum – much has changed since then, mostly in a negative direction. Great Britain probably never had a true European vocation and now this has turned into an active antipathy.
Indeed, it is fair to say that the general public in the UK – and this view is shared by most of the political elite on both the left and the right – regards Europe as an issue of costs and benefits – what do we get out of it and do we put more into it than we get back? The British may go to the Continent for their holidays, but they seldom have warm feelings for the people who live there. The hordes of drunken young British men who wander around Tallinn on weekends are no exception here, as they have not the slightest idea of what and where Estonia is; most Brits have only a vague knowledge of France or Spain and they actively dislike Germany.
So, when Prime Minister Blair claimed in his speech to the European Parliament on 23 June that he was “a passionate European”, he would hardly have dared to say that to a British audience and, indeed, he carefully avoided saying what his passionate Europeanism actually meant. Certainly, his intransigence during the European Council summit the previous week had been a major factor that contributed to the failure to produce an agreement on the 2007-2013 EU budget. Nor did he endear himself to committed Europeans by describing the complex process of compromise-building as “cobbled together” deals. All agreements at the European level require last minute concessions and speedy decisions.
There are many reasons why the British distance themselves from Europe. Of course, the political circles bear some of the responsibility for never having explained that European integration was always a political project, not a purely economic one like the failed European Free Trade Area (EFTA) of the 1950s and 1960s, as a result of which the UK sought membership of the EEC.
In addition, there is a peculiarly British reason why the EU is so strongly disliked. British governments have continuously blamed the EU for their own indulgence towards over-regulation. In simple terms, a directive that has – let’s say – 100 articles emerges from Brussels after having been politically approved by the Council of Ministers (in which the UK participates) and then it is sent to Whitehall for reprocessing to make it applicable to the UK; it re-emerges from Whitehall containing – let’s say – 1000 articles. Whitehall takes a framework and fills in the details in a uniquely thorough way, significantly expanding its own powers and insisting on fine-tuning the regulatory regime that many regard, quite rightly, as needlessly intrusive. The positive side of all this is that the UK administration has to take no political responsibility for its actions in this respect – it can all be blamed on Brussels. If there ever was power without responsibility, this is it.
The root of the problem that the UK has with Europe lies, however, in identity, although it is frequently disguised in the form of interests. A certain British identity has emerged over the last 15-20 years, which has formed, at least partially, in opposition to the “Continent”. After reading British tabloids for half an hour, the public dimension of this identity would be evident to anyone. Descriptions of the French or Germans would be called “racist”, if these were applied to other groups. They are stereotyped as devious, difficult, objectionable and anti-British, while a whole host of other negative characteristics are projected onto a mythic Continent. Whatever comes from across the Channel always gets the worst possible reception. “They” can never do things well; France and Germany can never stand for anything positive. And think of the way in which the Second World War is fought and re-fought on television every year. All this is connected with an emerging identity that is being defined against “them”. In the language of cultural studies and political correctness, what we are witnessing is a bad case of “otherness”, but only a few people would be willing to describe it in these terms. The question arises why this anti-Continental prejudice has prevailed.
A tentative answer should focus on the mixture of contingent and deeper issues that are shaping Great Britain today. The Scottish and Welsh devolution raised questions about the English identity. These questions have remained unanswered. The economic success of the UK in the last decade is attributed to UK’s escape from the ERM, non-accession to the Eurozone and the rising opposition to closer EU integration that was expressed by the British (English?) elite after Maastricht. These developments point to an English national identity that is looking for ways to emerge. However, “Englishness” never really had a chance to express itself, as Great Britain moved from an imperial self-image to a post-imperial one without going through the national phase.
The 1960s brought about the shift to “Britishness” that avoided unwanted reflections on what it meant to be English after the end of the empire, constituting a strategy for dealing with the integration of Commonwealth immigrants who were British, not English (why not?). Consequently, the act of defining oneself in opposition to Europe offers a relatively easy way out, although in the long term it cannot substitute the real thing because it evades all attempts to define what the collective self is, as opposed to what it is not. Furthermore, this way it is possible to characterise this semi-defined identity as a “post-national” entity, while it is actually something in-between, partly pre-national and neo-imperial (Great Britain’s global role), to a certain degree national (English in various cultural areas like football or in contradistinction to Europe) and, indeed, in some ways post-national (the integration of immigrants). But it does not matter how we call it, this phenomenon will not go away unless it is recognised. Furthermore, anti-Europeanism will remain one of its key components.
So, where does this leave European integration? The crisis is real and it concerns legitimacy. To be more specific, it concerns the process of integration itself. What the EU has been trying to achieve, when promoting an “ever closer union” according to the Rome Treaty, has now become seriously decoupled from what the people themselves want, whereas the old modes of gaining their approval have been exhausted. The elite may know the objectives of current actions, but the citizens of Europe do not.
Assuming that one supports the idea of an integrated Europe, it is urgently necessary to establish why integration is desirable and to define what the purpose of an integrated Europe is. The obvious answer –Europe is a zone of peace, democracy and stability – will not do because it is taken for granted, making European integration a victim of its own success. There is a need for something new.
This “something” should involve three tasks. The first task is to respond to the signal sent out by French and Dutch voters. They made it clear that there are limits to supranationalism and relations between national cultures have to be respected. National identity as such is still of primary importance in many European countries, providing a source of political power that will not disappear in a European super-state. This does not mean that the classical nation-state with rigid borders should be revived, but it does suggest that the post-national agenda – the favourite topic of the liberal left – has to be re-examined. The people who live in Europe want to have a national identity and be European at the same time. They are comfortable with their national cultures and want their traditions to matter – if this attitude spills over into politics, so be it. Conflicts can be solved and cultural nationhood should not be stigmatised as atavistic.
The second task is to accept the difference between social and market-related components in Europe. Both state failure and market failure can happen and the task is to create systems that can offer security to the victims of these failures. What kind of society tells someone who is sacked after 20 years of hard work that he or she will never find another job again? Radical individualism might suit the Americans, but it is not what the Europeans want. The dismantling of the welfare state has to stop somewhere; there are risks that have to be managed by states, not individuals; the weakest have to have some security as well. It is essential to initiate an informed debate on how to prevent states from becoming too bureaucratic when they try to offer help to their people because it could be argued that it is economically dysfunctional to protect labour markets too much. The problem of unemployment (10%) despite generous benefits, as in France and Germany, has to be tackled. But this should not be done at the cost of providing no social protection at all.
And lastly, there is Europe’s role in the world. There are numerous isolationists on both the right and the left who throw around accusations of “Eurocentrism” and who would like to limit its role to the minimum. But Europe has a set of key advantages when it comes to non-Europe. These advantages are based on “soft power”, on Europe’s one great achievement in the second half of the 20th century – Europe’s way of dealing with conflicts without violence and allowing large and small states to live together. This has meant the acceptance of the norms of other cultures, reflecting cultural and political diversity and tacitly recognising that Europe’s modern norms are not always the answer. This is the true meaning of living in a culturally diverse community. The US is a long way from accepting these ideas.
The challenge of the coming decades is the rise of non-European modern states – China, India and Brazil are on the threshold of this shift. They call into question the West’s monopoly on the definition of modernity. The key issue for the world is whether these new modern states will be able to combine their modern economies with democracy. Soft power and consensual politics promoted by Europe could help them in their efforts.
More importantly, however, Europe has the potential to embark on the boldest mission of them all – to tame globalisation. At the moment, economic actors are free to do what they want without any political consequences, which means that they may enhance or destroy communities without a second thought. It should be borne in mind that economic actors have no political responsibility; that they have not been elected and legitimised; that they do not have to answer for the consequences of their actions. Europe could launch a process of re-establishing democratic control over economic globalisation and in an ideal case it could extend democracy to the economic actions of globalisers. Will it happen? It might, but only if a debate about the re-launching of Europe is initiated.

No comment yet, add your voice below!


Add a Comment