After a Christmas break that we’ll assume was restful, I’m back in the office, working through all the things that apparently have built up over the past ten days. In particular, I’m catching up with my various interactions on Twitter and the semi-regular discussions with eurosceptic individuals (such as Paul Perrin).
It was already back in 1998 that Karlheinz Neunreither noted that the nature of the EU was not at all conducive to opposition. Usually in a democratic political system there is a recognised role for opposition to be expressed and brought into public debate: thus, the UK has the notion of Her Majesty’s Opposition in Parliament, a institutionally protected second view to balance and challenge that of the government of the day. As Dahl observed, this is a revolutionary concept in political organisation, where winners have historically taken all power to themselves. By legitimising opposition, democracies create a structure to allow debate and the creation of new syntheses in advancing public policy, as well as building in a safety valve (Hirschmann’s Voice) to moderate dissent.
By contrast, the EU is a consensual system, with power shared between member states and the supranational institutions which they have jointed created to aim them. Since the EU is not a state, the usual (European) role of the Parliament to form a ‘government’ is absent, as it is member states who decide who will be in the Commission (NB, the Parliament does approve this, but it only approves the choice of states, rather than choosing that list itself). Decisions come out of a long process of consultation, debate and compromise, typically based on what it possible, rather than on any one ideological or party political programme: after all, it is the member states themselves that have to implement and live with their decisions, so they gate-keep that very closely.
The upshot is that while there is some limited space for opposition (notably in the European Parliament and in the public sphere), there is no structured role for it, primarily because it is hard to identify who one might be opposing: the Commission proposes legislation, but doesn’t decide it; the Council (which is allows involved in decision-making) has no structural majority; and the EP doesn’t have a requirement to support a government. Neunreither recognised that in the face of this, the difficulty of articulating opposition to a specific element of what the EU does translates very quickly into opposition to what the EU is: because I can’t really set out another view about this specific thing, I will complain about the system and its lack of opportunity for me to set out another view. Opposition becomes structural.
To be very clear, this does not mean that the EU is not democratic, but rather that its democratic elements are articulated in different ways (this is a long debate about yardsticks, where it suffices for now to say that the EU is a highly democratic International Organisation). Democracy is always (and by definition) imperfect, so we either have to accept the diversity of imperfections or stop using the word without qualification.
What does this have to do with Twitter?
First and foremost, it requires us to understand the situation in which we find ourselves. If we can accept that democratic models of governance are necessarily imperfect, then we also have to accept that there is always some other way that we can do things. Opposition (in the classic Dahlian sense) is predicated on tolerance and mutual respect: “I disagree with what you say, but defend to the death to say it.” No one has a monopoly on the truth of how things should be and we should all be comfortable in listening to different views and discussing them, without dismissing them out of hand.
This is the key reason I have spent a long time trying to encourage those within the EU’s broad consensus to listen to, and talk with, those outside it; not because I agree with them, but because their concerns are legitimate ones that need addressing if the EU is to survive in the longer-term. But this cuts both ways: eurosceptics have to listen and talk back, otherwise they cannot achieve anything of their objectives.
This does not always come naturally: people are emotional beings, prone to short-circuiting arguments and only looking for confirmation of their opinions. That’s how we all are and even I were to suggest we try to approach things in a coldly rational way, then we’d fail.
Which is why I won’t suggest it. Instead, I would ask that we at least be aware that this is how we are, to give us all at least a chance of getting beyond it.
So let’s call it a resolution of mine this year to try harder to understand why eurosceptics have the views they do, and get them to understand my own views, so that we can start to find mutually acceptable solutions.