Euroscepticism as a problem, euroscepticism as a proxy
The framing of opposing viewpoints as ‘Eurosceptic’ is counterproductive. EU policy-makers must actively reach out and engage with the critiques that sceptics offer, working with them to find mutually acceptable solutions
As we approach the European elections, the issue of euroscepticism is one that is commanding much attention. Various flavours of ‘something must be done’ echo around the media – either to bend to it or to quash it – but at the same time it is evident that there is not much understanding of what euroscepticism actually is. That lack of understanding is, and will continue to be, a vital factor in the coming development of the European Union.
Academic scholarship on euroscepticism has been of limited use in this, given that it has been characterised by deep divisions about the drivers of the phenomenon, not to mention its definition. Some argue that it’s grounded in economic factors, others in identity politics and yet others in party political competition. Similarly, some scholars focus on public opinion, others on parties, while others still look at the media or interest groups. And yet – somewhat perversely – it is precisely in this multiplicity of approaches and foci that we can draw out some useful policy implications.
The forms of euroscepticism
If we look back at the development of opposition to the EU, we can see two distinct elements. On the one hand, there are those individuals and groups that have been in action seemingly forever: Jens-Peter Bonde, who’d been doing it long enough to have to retire recently, or the British-based CIB, formed in the aftermath of the 1975 referendum. More recently, you have those who kept active in their opposition in the early 2000s, after the single currency membership debates and before the Constitutional Treaty.
On the other, you have the more diffuse and unorganised wave of opposition that has emerged in recent years: all the groups and parties that have started tacking on expressions of dissatisfaction with European integration to their programmes; the rise in negative public opinion and protest voting in elections; the critical media coverage.
To my mind, these are two different things and we might usefully separate them.
The former group are characterised by their righteousness, a belief that they are fighting for fundamental principles that cannot be left to chance. For them, the EU is not only a problem, but the problem. Their opposition thus is an end in itself and we might expect that they are likely to stay active and fighting even in a reformed Union. To take the British case, these are the sort of people who would keep up their opposition even after losing a referendum on membership.
The latter group is something more like grit in the system. They are dissatisfied, rather than deeply opposed, their concerns are driven as much by the economic cycle and dissatisfaction with all expressions of authority as by the actions of the Union itself. Thus, the EU is a problem – like the first group – but an expression of another problem. In this case, we might see that as it becomes evident that a Union (changed or not) is not the root cause of the difficulty, so these people will move on to some other thing: their opposition is a means to an end and as such they are more likely to accept a narrative that a reforming Union is meeting their concerns.
If we can accept this distinction then we can draw some tentative conclusions.
Firstly, much of the current handwringing about the future of European integration is overdone, since most people are not actually that bothered and will buy into a reformist agenda. Witness here there the strength of feeling in the UK for a reformist option in any future referendum. Of course, this supposes that reform is an option, something that European leaders have yet to embrace.
Secondly, it means understanding that interaction with ‘sceptics’ needs differentiation: not all sceptics (indeed hardly any of them) want simple withdrawal or dismemberment, and to treat all in the same way is as likely to radicalise moderates as it is to win them over. The EU has never been good at making this distinction, even though a moment’s reflection would point to the simple observation that just as there are many euroscepticisms, so there are many europhilias: otherwise, the Council and the EP would all agree on everything, all the time (which they patently don’t). In this sense, the reframing of different viewpoints as ‘sceptical’ has been very counterproductive.
Thirdly, it means accepting that some euroscepticism – the permanent sort – is unlikely to be resolved, except in the very long term.
Responding to euroscepticism
Given this analysis, it might be suggested that a clear path lays before the European Union for addressing and resolving the situation. By recognising the validity of people’s discontent and further broadening the consensual mode that already typifies European policy- and polity-making, it would be possible to disarm and defuse that discontent.
A key criticism of the EU is its remoteness and lack of transparency, resulting in a sense that some clique is in control: this is the meaning of ‘Brussels’. As any practitioner or informed observer will tell you, the truth is actually closer to a situation of a panoply of voices and interests in constant competition, with no one institution or state holding the reins. As such, the subjective impression is misaligned with the practical facts on the ground. Adding to that wide incorporation of voices should not be so difficult.
And yet it implies a more fundamental change of attitude by those involved. No longer can EU policy-makers say that their broad coalition on an issue is ‘good enough’, but they have to actively reach out to those outside that coalition, particularly if that latter group feels it is permanently excluded.
A good example of this occurred during the Convention on the Future of the EU in the mid-2000s, when almost all the Convention members approved a draft Constitutional Treaty. But the small band of sceptics involved had put together an alternative draft, which eventually got appended to the main text. But there was no effort at any point to try and bridge the gap between the two texts or groups.
Such missed opportunities have been the hallmark of European integration to date. The achievement – and it is an achievement – of bringing together left and right, federalists and intergovernmentalists, rich and poor has blinded the Union to the need to bring in those who have doubts into the process.
In practical terms, that means a partnership of EU institutions and member states in creating spaces for public debate and education, so that citizens can better understand their ability to influence what happens. It requires an EU communication strategy that flows up to the Union, rather than down to citizens. And it needs a political class – national and European - that is willing to have a full and frank debate about the options available for the Union and the implications of those options. None of these are simple to secure, but all are necessary if a sustainable form of European cooperation is to be maintained, of any form.
The suspicion with which sceptics are treated and the sense that any concession is going to be the thin end of a very big wedge are both factors that will limit the ability of the Union to start making this change. But at a time of economic weakness and a lack of scope for producing substantial policy outputs – climate change? Eurozone growth? Foreign policy? – has to learn that pride is a dangerous attitude to hold. By engaging with the critiques that sceptics offer and by working with them to find mutually acceptable solutions, the Union can not only start to get a handle on the present, but also lay the foundations for its future.
Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. He is coordinator of the UACES Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction.