The European elections in May 2014 saw a sharp rise in the number of MEPs elected who reject some or all of the fundamental principles on which the European Union is based. Why are pro-European politicians failing to convince their citizens of the benefits of the Union?
The widespread fear of “populism” in the run-up to the elections to the European Parliament was realised through the election of anti-establishment, specifically anti-European parties in many countires. Amongst others, the Front National, UKIP, the Greek Syriza, and the Danish People’s Party were the largest parties in their respective countries, while various other Eurosceptic parties made significant gains across the continent.
The primary strategy of mainstream, pro-European politicians up until now seems to have been one of casual dismissal. David Cameron famously described UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” while in the European Parliament anti-European sentiments are more often than not met with jibes rather than substantive counter-arguments. Given the results of the last election, is it time to engage with the critics?
Is the Union immune to criticism?
The first thing to consider is what type of criticism is being made of the European Union, both with regard to specific policies as well as to general membership of the Union. Of course, overtly racist messages should be called out for what they are, such as from the German NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) or the BNP (British National Party) in the UK. However, the claim that all Eurosceptic or Euro-critical voices are racist, extremist, or populist in some way is no longer acceptable in the current political climate.
Europe's soveign debt crisis has highlighted faults in the Union's architecture, most notably in the construction of the Eurozone. Many economists accept that Greece should never have been allowed to have the Euro, due to the loss of control of monetary policy and the ensuing inability to devalue their own currency. The argument that a fiscal union without a banking union is unsustainable is holding increasing sway.
However, the general criticisms of EU membership extend beyond the economic sphere. The Union has shown itself to be paralysed and unable to reach the necessary quick decisions in a crisis. Meanwhile, concerns over the impact of immigration on individual communities cannot simply be ignored. To do so is to ignore the real problems of ghettoization and deprivation amongst communities affected by the mass, uncontrolled influx of immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe in the wake of the 2004 enlargement. While the solution is not to disband the Union or for individual countries to leave and refuse entry to migrants, rejecting the claims that some communities have been negatively impacted as populist or racist is to ignore real social problems which lead to increasing Euroscepticism.
Additionally, the EU doesn’t do itself any favours with regards to certain policy choices. While many media report about interference in minor matters (the standardisation of the curvature of cucumbers and bananas being amongst the most famous myths) are sensationalised and spun out of all proportion by the press, the EU’s pursuit of similar policies may be well-intentioned, but lead to further criticism. The recent announcement of proposals to standardise the energy efficiency of various household appliances was met with derision from various sources; although the environmental benefits hoped for in the long-run may be noticeable, the effect in the short- to medium-term was markedly negative for the EU’s image. While each individual policy announcement may result merely in a few days worth of media coverage, the cumulative effect of these is an image of EU bureaucrats with nothing better to do than focus on standardising every aspect of its citizens’ lives. At a time of financial and economic crisis and of major global conflicts, this makes the EU seem petty and unable to deal with the real issues of today.
A real response?
It is increasingly clear that these concerns cannot be met with the derision and disdain that has characterised the Union’s response up until now. Both sides need to enter a sincere political dialogue. The pro-European political mainstream has the dual challenge of fighting off these criticisms and promoting the general benefits of the Union to the general public.
The approach to these two challenges I would suggest may seem somewhat contradictory at first, but ultimately it represents two sides of the same coin. Essentially, the EU needs to demonstrate that there are big issues where it is the only possible effective actor, while simultaneously showing that it can be relevant to the lives of individual citizens. So turning to the first challenge, the EU needs to combat the criticism that it is petty and ineffective at dealing with the larger issues by displaying its impact on the global stage. At present, there are more than enough global challenges for the EU to focuson, and while it has been a key player in the Ukraine crisis, its citizens need to see it taking on a larger role in a number of foreign policy areas. Of course, the EU is heavily constrained by the wishes of its Member States in this area, which often do not agree with one another or do not want to see the EU take over foreign policy or do not wish it to dictate climate policy. However, if the EU fails to assert itself in these areas, it will continue to appear weak and ineffective as a global power.
Meanwhile, the other side of the coin is demonstrating the benefits individual citizens gain from belonging to the Union. The efforts to achieve this have thus far focussed around key words such as peace and shared values. These are abstract concepts which will not appeal to generations who no longer remember the wars that ravaged Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Concrete, tangible benefits brought about by membership of the European Union need to form the centre of Europe’s campaign. For example, the EU’s recent success concerning roaming charges would be highly popular, if it were more widely promoted. More policies such as this would enable the EU to portray itself as relevant to its citizens.
Euroscepticism as a movement: A return to political debate
The above response to the challenge of Euroscepticism consists of the acknowledgement of criticism, the adaptation of policy and of the presentation of policy in order to improve public opinion. In the ordinary political arena, this is a perfectly normal process. Through political debate, both in national parliaments and in the press, parties and politicians are forced to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their policies, which ones they should promote and how they should present them. This ultimately leads to thoroughly debated and considered policies. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that it also causes parties to adopt policies which are more populist in nature than would otherwise be endorsed; however, I believe that the advantages public debate brings to the political arena outweigh the more negative aspects of these policies.
The EU can too benefit from this process. This crisis of confidence in the political system, particularly on the European level, creates the opportunity for reflection and for growth. If the EU chooses to engage with the criticism facing it, it can remind itself of the benefits it brings to its citizens and can therefore focus on doing that which it does best. Through this process, it can convince the citizens of Europe that its politicians are listening and acting in the best interests of everybody. In doing so, the policies coming from Europe will only improve.
The acceptance of Euroscepticism as a legitimate political movement necessarily entails treating it as, for example, a conservative would treat a social democrat. We do not ordinarily consider such differences harmful to the political landscape. On the contrary, genuine engagement with criticism is seen as a way of focusing policies down to their essences, of considering their possible negative impacts and how to deal with them. In a national democracy, a difference of opinion is not perceived as a problem, but as an opportunity. It is time we remember this on the European level.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe
- October 2014 thematic
- CHEVOPPE, F., “The (Second) British Rebellion: Is this the end of Britain in the EU ?” Nouvelle Europe, 24 October 2011, displayed on 14 October 2014
On the Internet
HANNAN, D., “For the first time, the European Parliament has a Eurosceptic opposition,” The Telegraph, published on 30 June 2014, displayed on 14 October 2014
SITTER, N., ”Opposing Europe: Euroscepticism, Opposition and Party Competition,” SEI Working Paper 56, 1-29, 2002, displayed on 14 October 2014
- LECONTE, C., Understanding Euroscepticism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
- LUBBERS, M. and SCHEEPERS, P., “Political versus Instrumental Euroscepticism,” European Union Politics, 6:2, 223-242, 2005
- ZIELONKA, J., Is the EU Doomed?, Polity Press, 2014
Photo credits: "Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party", European Parliament, on Flickr