Why the EU is losing the argument

It’s no use blaming the Irish. If it hadn’t been they who rejected the Lisbon Treaty it would likely have been any number of other European countries if their leaders had had the guts to ask the people what they thought. The fact – which surely must now be universally acknowledged and faced up to – is that the people of Europe now no longer trust the European Union.

There are doubtless many reasons for this – a rejection of globalisation, a ‘politics of contentment’, the remoteness of Brussels, the perfidy of nationalistic media, gross failures within the EU. But I suspect the broader reason is a more conceptual one: the EU lacks a popular narrative.

The old narrative of the EU was crystal clear: to end war in Europe. For a continent scarred by centuries of warfare, and which had just emerged from the destruction – physical, economic and social – of World War II, selling the concept of a European Community of trading partners committed to peace was hardly a tough job. It was a narrative which bound European nations together in the half century after 1945.

That old narrative had been superceded by a new one: the enlargement of the EU into eastern Europe and the near Middle East. This is just as important, but much less easy to pitch to European citizens who have become accustomed to widespread (albeit not universal) peace. As Chris Patten has put it, this ‘next’ task:

… will do more than anything else we could attempt to prevent that ‘clash of civilisations’ predicted by Samuel Huntington and devoutly hoped for by extremists, especially (but not solely) Islamic ones. The reconciliation of France and Germany was the necessary and admirable European accomplishment of the twentieth century; reconciling the West and the Islamic world, with Europe acting as hinge between the two, is a major task for the twenty-first. (Not Quite the Diplomat, pp.143-44)

Indeed it is. But it is not an easy sell, as EU enlargement has and will unleash tensions: an expanded market results in winners and, at least in the short-term, also losers – with the losers inevitably shouting loudest. Turkey’s membership of the EU, so crucial to Europe’s long-term future, is regarded with deep scepticism by the EU’s two largest founders, France and Germany, each fearing the negative response of their own citizens.

If the national governments of Europe cannot find it in themselves to support the EU’s new raison d’etre, is it really so surprising that their own citizens can’t either?

Ironically, the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty reinforces the Lib Dems’ call for a referendum on the only question that matters: whether the UK should be in or out. Many saw this proposal as nothing more than a political tactic, a way of preserving party unity. And they were probably at least partly right.

And yet as time goes by the more evident it becomes that the EU is suffering a disconnect between the governing elites and the governed. I don’t buy for one moment the British public cares over-much about the nitty-gritty of the Lisbon Treaty – qualified majority voting and the number of EU commissioners – but I absolutely accept they care about the direction of the EU, and what Britain’s role in it should be. That is the only question worth debating. And it needs debating now more than ever.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Andrew Turvey 16th Jun '08 - 9:14am

    I think ordinary people do care about the division of powers generally, and specifically about which powers reside with European-level institutions and which ones are reserved to member states. The idea this is too “complex” to trust ordinary people on it is deeply undemocratic. Lisbon changed this division of powers, and the people should have to give their consent where these change. Europe needs to stop trying to bypass its peoples, and draft a constitution which really will get popular consent.

  • I think a major mistake EU and politicians supporting it are making is to refuse to take no for an answer. People aren’t that stupid, that they would think that the Treaty of Lisbon essentially differs from the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe which was already rejected by the voters in the Netherlands and France. By pressing the Treaty in a new form for people who have just rejected it they create a rift between themselves and the people, and give an impression that they actually really don’t give a dam to what the people are saying. No wonder, if they then face opposition. They should listen to the message the people are sending in the referendums and respect it, even if that message would (for whatever reason) be “no”. If they don’t, how are they different from Robert Mugabe who is forging elections?

  • David Heigham 16th Jun '08 - 9:54am

    I think Stephenis too kind to the EU establishment.

    I am a committed European, and have been one since before the Treaty of Rome was signed. It seems clear to me that the EU will not be able to secure popular support for the reforms it needs until and unless it is seen to address its evident failings. The “Constitution” and the Lisbon Treaty fail to do that.

    To me, the obvious failings of Europe’s present institutions are, in summary:

    1. Many officials of the Commission (and some MEPs) display, almost proudly, the symptoms of a bureaucracy which maximises its own satisfactions. That is to say, they are very comfortable, avoid accountability, are rather ineffective, are expensive for what they do, and show persistent tendencies to tolerate corruption. The bureaucracy needs much more demanding leadership, management and oversight.

    2. A shortage of effective control of activities and of expenditure.

    3. An apparatus for reaching political compromises that is cumbersome, not consistently framed, and slow.

    4. Institutional arrangements for putting forward the arguments of common interest have become diffuse and weak, as much within the institutions as in relation to the peoples of Europe and the wider world.

    No doubt others can elaborate and improve on that summary. Nevertheless, the fundamental political problem for the EU establishment is that it cannot relate to us European citizens while it is in denial about its failings.

  • David – you are correct
    IMHO at least 1,2 and 3 seem to apply to the UK government as well as the EU

  • Hywel Morgan 16th Jun '08 - 10:31am

    Responses like this are a pretty good summary of why the argument gets lost

    “Andrew Duff, a UK Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, said: “People are still stupefied by the decision of the Irish, we need to wait for the clearing of everybody’s brains.”

  • “Andrew Duff, a UK Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, said: “People are still stupefied by the decision of the Irish, we need to wait for the clearing of everybody’s brains.”

    I love Andrew dearly, but here in one sentence is the attitude of the Euro-Elite encapsulated. When are more of my fellow Lib Dems going to come to terms with the simple fact that being pro-European and being pro-EU are not the same thing and that we should be far more hostile to this corrupt bureaucracy, that stands for everything Liberals should be opposed to, than we are today?

    Clegg, despite his background in the Euro-trough, seems to have no illusions about the EU and his affirmation that the democratic voice of the Irish must be respected is hopefully another stage on the road to a more realistic position on the EU.

    Once we have that, we can have a proper policy on Europe. One that can encompass the two key elements that we give so little thought to today. Russia and Turkey.

  • Lib Dems seem to be in contradiction with themselves in one major point.

    Lib Dems often declare that they want to devolve power to the local government, closer to the people. At the same time they support treaties devolving power to Brussels, further away from people.

    Maybe there isn’t a contradiction, but Lib Dems are just inable to articulate how are these two objectives compatible with the other. In that case they should figure out how to articulate how these two objectives are compatible with the other. If they can’t do that, they should choose which objectibe they are supporting.

    EU has many fine qualities, not least the common market, to which Liberals, having always supported free trade and freedom of movement, naturally feel affection to. But Lib Dems should be able to a more nuanced analysis about what is good and liberal and what isn’t.

    EU has many illiberal features as well, the obvious loss of direction, the ignorance of the democratically expressed opinions, the inclination to devolve more and more powers to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels and inability to stop the swelling of the EU machine.

    Lib Dems shouldn’t just swallow anything that comes from the EU as inherently good. What are they afraid of? Being scolded by José Manuel Barroso?

  • Dane Clouston wrote:

    “The longer the Liberal Democrats are seen as EU-fanatics the more they will go into long term decline.

    There is an EU-sceptic Liberal Party (www.liberal.org.uk). The Liberal Democrats ought to become EU-sceptic…”

    – And raise their support to the same level as The Liberal Party? I actually agree with you that the Liberal Democrats should merge again with the Liberal Party and allow liberal EU-sceptics in, but if liberal Euro-sceptism would be the trick to get the support in rise, why hasn’t The (Euro-sceptic) Liberal Party done better?

    I would recommend constructive criticism towards EU. There are liberal elements in it, and those should be defended by Liberals, and there are illiberal elements, that should be opposed. There’s no reason why Liberals should take or leave EU as it is, they should try to reform it more vigorously, and even sometimes publicly oppose attempts to increase its powers, which are tried to disguise as “reforms”.

  • Jeremy Hargreaves: “This is all why the simplistic comments made above by the cowardly individual hiding behind the word ‘Anonymous’, that all treaty reform should be abandoned are, while perhaps understandable, not a realistic way forward.”

    Maybe I’m giving an extra weapon against myself by remaining anonymous (Actually I didn’t fill the Name box at all), and let people like Jeremy Hargreaves instead of actually answering my arguments to abuse me by calling me a coward.

    However, Jeremy Hargreaves or anybody here has never met me, and my name would not tell them anything, so it wouldn’t help them in any way. If I used my real name, on the other hand, my comments could be easily found with Google by people, who you also don’t know but who could use them against me. I could of course also use a pseudonym, but somehow I don’t feel that would be honest, I prefer to remain openly anonymous.

    After answering to the personal abuse issued by Jeremy Hargreaves, I’d like to add that I’m for some kind of reform. However, this treaty has been rejected in its two incarnations, and the EU Elite should already accept that. They should take a long break, stop trying to patch up the treaty already dead, and concentrate to every day things that need to be done. After perhaps 10-20 years they could draft a whole new treaty, much simpler so that people can actually understand it and not be left with the suspicion that the EU Elite is trying to slip something that the people are opposed to in the mega-sized paragraph jungle.

    The basic treaties don’t need to be long. The United States Constitution has 27 amendments that can easily be printed on few pages. The Treaty of Lisbon has 152 pages (before the protocols and declarations). The EU Elite can’t expect people with day jobs to read the whole treaty before accepting it in a referendum. Few people are ready to sign a paper without reading and understanding it.

    Therefore this kind of basic treaties should be kept short and simple. The details can then be agreed for instance in the EP in accordance with the basic treaty that is controlling the power of the EP and other EU organs and protecting the rights of EU citizens. The paragraphs about the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy or common safety concerns in public health matters don’t need to be included in the basic treaty nor be presented for a referendum.

    I think the basic treaty should be few pages long, using intelligible language, and it should be send for each EU citizen, who could then read it and make up his or her mind, whether he or she supports it.

  • Dane Clouston, what I meant is that you suggested (thoug indirectly), that if Lib Dems would become Euro-sceptic, the decline of their support would stop. If liberal Euro-scepticism would be more popular than liberal Euro-fanatism, shouldn’t the support of The Liberal Party be higher than the support of the Liberal Democrats?

    I think that leaving EU as whole is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Yes, there is much objectionable about the EU from a liberal point of view, but it has also achieved a lot of good. Therefore I’d prefer constructive criticism. Let’s abandon the illiberal features of EU, but lets keep the liberal features.

    And you are right when you say that there is more to the world than Continental Europe, but that doesn’t mean that Britain should turn it’s back to the Continental Europe. The EU should be more open to the rest of the world (a place for constuctive criticism), but leaving EU would close more doors than it would open.

  • Any discussion of the EU really does bring out the nutters, doesn’t it? (See above)

    sad sad sad.

  • I thought there were some rules of condunction on this site, but it doesn’t seem to apply to everyone. ColinW, sad that you can’t play the ball, not the player.

  • If by EU-sceptics we mean constructive critics, rather than destructive critics, then, yes, there is space in the LibDems.

    Some of the criticism does have a strong basis which follows the old debate about free trade vs tariff boundaries, but it is a false debate to view it as a fight between an international elite and a national elite for the dominant political position.

    In my personal opinion the EU is reaching an existential impasse of it’s own creation of which the divergence between people and politicians is a disturbing symptom.

    In one sense I agree that Brussels has missed a step in its progress by failing to integrate Switzerland, Norway, Iceland etc before looking further eastwards, in a second sense I think the EU isn’t moving in tempo so these frictions are unavoidable. At one level this results in the linguistic difficulty of writing singular tracts which can be uniformly interpreted by all sides, at another this can be seen in the disconformity of adherence to the commonly agreed regulations.

  • Dane, it is a shame for your argument that your contention doesn’t reflect reality.

  • Jeremy, I think we could go one stage further and apply that analysis to governance at a global level, rather than just up to continent polities.

    Many of the criticisms of the EU apply equally to the UN and could be solved in a similar manner.

    I think we do need to understand government as a layered chain of powers to be held and operated by representative bodies at the appropriate level for their function, but I’m split over whether to support a UN parliamentary assembly to balance and offset the powers of the general assembly and various councils, or whether this would be better constituted on a regional basis, and at what size – maybe you could offer some thoughts.

    It strikes me as blindingly obvious however, that once you accept the principle that is is impractical and impossible for any single person to rule with divine right it becomes an open question what the correct level of decision-making powers held by any representative group should be.

  • Jeremy Hargreaves wrote: “Each of us might not want very much from such a new constitution or document, but the document we have had in front of us for the last few years (first the so-called Constitution, now Lisbon) is the outcome of just such a process (indeed a very exhaustive and lengthy one).”

    Does anybody anymore remember, how it all started? Valéry Giscard d’Estaing get a task to bring together the various basic treaties of EU in order to simplify the paragraph jungle. Instead he exceeded his authority and desided to erect a monument to himself, by drafting “a constitution” (which was never called for). Instead of merely bringing together the existing treaties he invited the representatives of different interest groups to record their privileges into the “constitution”. It no longer was what a constitution is, it became a whole legislation called a “constitution”. And all those people who now claim that this “reform” is “needed” have totally forgotten what the reform was supposed tp achieve. Now the only possibility I can see is to start again from scratch. Not because of the French, or the Dutch, or the Irish who all rejected the treaty, but thanks to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who refused to stick to his last.

    Now we could go on with this forever, but actually after the abuse you have aimed at me, I don’t have any more time to you.

  • Hywel Morgan 16th Jun '08 - 11:11pm

    “Because any amendment to it requires the unanimous agreement of all 50 States, it is now almost impossible to amend the US Constitution.”

    Only 3/4s of states are needed.

    The last amendment was as recently as 1992 – though as this took over 200 years to be ratified it may not be strongly supportive of my case 🙂

  • Grammar Police 17th Jun '08 - 12:07pm

    Dane, given that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are liberal in any real sense of the word (although there are undoubtably liberal members of both parties) the fact that you elevate some bizarre notion of “EU fanatics” to the issue on which you would base your vote (at presumably any level of Government) suggests to me that you would be more at home in UKIP than the continuing Liberal Party. There are issues on which I disagree with Lib Dem policy – but I’d rather have a Lib Dem MP in parliament than a Labour or Tory one because I want to help ensure that Britain is a more liberal country.

    I don’t think the Liberal Party reflect much at all, let alone a sense of protest. If anything, the Green Party can increasingly claim this mantle. They too are a eurosceptic minor party, although I don’t necessarily think that voters vote for them on the EU issue.

    For me, part of being a liberal is recognising that there are appropriate levels of governance for all issues. We need full scale and appropriate devolution depending on the issue – to communities, local councils, (dare I say it) regions, national assemblies, the UK parliament and supranational bodies.

    That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the existing structure (ironically that I think Lisbon might solve some of these) and especially in perception. People genuinely do believe the establishment is shoehorning them into it. We need a referendum on EU membership and the ‘establishment’ needs to argue properly in favour of it (and hopefully win).

  • Grammar Police 17th Jun '08 - 1:46pm

    Indeed; it’s certainly daunting to live up to (not something I always do)!

    Ignoring, for the moment, whether the Lib Dem manifesto did promise a referendum on a treaty like Lisbon: surely Lisbon is just a side issue. The thing you really want is an in-out referendum? How do you argue in favour of an amending treaty? It would turn into a proxy pro/anti referendum. We might as well just have the real thing – which is what Liberal Democrat policy is.

  • Samuel Brittan: Why the Irish were right to say No

    “If you are looking for examples of nonsense on stilts you could hardly find a better instance than the reactions of the European political establishment to the Irish No vote in the referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

    To begin with, it is not “a defeat for Europe”. It is not even a defeat for the European Union. It is a defeat for a certain vision of the EU.

    First and foremost there is the goal of shifting more and more decisions to the EU level. This started after the second world war as a noble effort to end all possibility of war between Germany and France. It was twinned with the creation of a large area of liberal trade, in a world still full of restrictions. As the original goals have been lost in the mists of time, the aim of “more Europe” has been pursued by the leading group of politicians and bureaucrats for its own sake, even to extending to the Brussels level decisions that are left to the state level in the US. …”

    Read the whole article here.

  • Joe Otten, please read the article I refered to in my previous message. It says:

    “But the framers of the ill-fated constitutional treaty were determined to extend the EU competence. When France and the Netherlands threw this out in their referendums the eurocrats came up with the Lisbon treaty. Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, who presided over the original convention, declared that it amounted to the same thing. “

  • You don’t have to take his word every time. However, he was the author of the original constitution, so he should know. But perhaps he’s just lying, like all of those b****y Frenchmen?

  • But you are right in one thing; I think that the Lisbon Treaty indeed is an attempt to resurrect the constitution, although with another name. Those EU bureaucrats just don’t know when to give up, do they?

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