An exchange today on twitter with @UKnotEU and @EUlondonrep reminded me that it’s easy for even those with a good knowledge of the European Union to get confused. Thus the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights) suddenly got rolled into the EU (European Union), when it’s actually a part of the Council of Europe (CoE), which has nothing to do with the EU’s European Council, possibily because it was being confused with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is part of the EU. Easily (and often) done, by political commentators and students alike.
My first instinct is to think of ways to avoid the confusion. Thus the EUROPEAN Council is part of the EUROPEAN Union; the EU nevers uses the word EUROPE in the names of its institutions (it’s always EUROPEAN); likewise the EU doesn’t have a document of HUMAN RIGHTS, but rather of FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS. We might moan about the lack of imagination in naming (of use of each other’s flags), but that’s not really going to solve anything.
My second instinct is to think of other examples of such confusion. There are many geographical issues: UK/Britain/England or ‘Eastern Europe’. Likewise, we have the ongoing distinctions between American and British ‘Liberals’. And then get into the People’s Front of Judea territory.
In all these cases, there is a common thread of a lack of engagement: it’s simply not important enough to the person to find out and respect the various labels people given themselves. Sometimes that it because it’s too distant from one’s own experience – think about we get less specific about where we’re from, the further we are from home. But in many cases, and especially the one with which I opened, it’s about othering. The Other becomes a vague object, not to be understood by outsiders (i.e. by Us), but only seen from afar. Common traits gain new levels of meaning and significance: We are quirky, they are strange.
One of the reasons why eurosceptics have found it so hard to get a hearing in the European Union is because many of them don’t buy into the EU’s logic and language. That’s completely understandable, given that once you decide that you don’t like something, you usually don’t spend as much time as possible studying it. It’s telling that those critical voices that have been most successful have been the ones that have invested themselves most heavily in the Union, people like Jens-Peter Bonde, Bill Cash or Nigel Farage. Of course, this in turn raises the age-old ‘Fundi-Realo’ tension – how do you balance your principles with the opportunities that present themselves?
That’s a discussion for another time, but if we come back to our simple confusions, then we might conclude that resolving such matters isn’t simply a question of ‘better education’ (which tends to be the usual response), but has to come from people wanting to understand in the first place. You get a lot further if you can show you have taken the time to understand those with whom you deal and to show that to them. That’s a pretty good incentive to want to learn.