It’s never been entirely clear why Brits seem to come out in hives whenever the EU is discussed. Any notion of fair and considered debate – something that we like to think is part of our pragmatic nature – very often gets thrown out of the window and we end up with the rehashing of stereotypes and the recycling of basic factual errors. The EU/ECHR confusion I’ve discussed before is symptomatic, and not just with the traditional sceptic sources.
Let’s consider some examples. Exhibit one is the current series of BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents, looking at the creation of the Euro and its current travails. In the first part, broadcast this weekend, there seemed to be an understanding that there was something underhand about the whole process at Maastricht and in the selection of first wave states in 1998, with mention of the ‘juggernaut’ of monetary integration and questions about the preparedness of certain states for a single currency. This is of course to make the basic mistake of thinking that European integration is only an economic process: monetary integration is (and always was) about politics. Just as the ECSC came out of the experience of the Second World War and the desire to pursue deeper Franco-German rapprochement than was possible in other fora, so the single currency was about affirming Germany’s European position and making the new European Union a pole in the international system. To describe the ‘Monnet method’ as ‘intrinsically secretive’ is neither accurate nor helpful in understanding how sectoral integration could offer a way to address functional needs and political imperatives.
Exhibit two is the Guardian’s Europa series last week. This brought together commentators from a number of European newspapers to share experiences and perspectives and offered a very good insight into an often-neglected aspect of Europeans’ relations. However, Michael White’s piece on euroscepticism in theUK rehashed many of the tropes of the debateabout European integration. In dwelling on the ‘distinctiveness’ of theUK as an explanation, failed to note that every part of the European continent makes claims about its distinctiveness; the construction of identity is a fundamental part of the nation-building process that has taken place over the past few centuries. Ask a Pole or a Portuguese about whether their country is special and you’ll hear much the same as in theUK, even if the specifics differ. This in turn feeds into the observation that the rest of the EU’s member states are just as interested in preserving their national identity as are the British. Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the way French governments have continually sought to make a French Europe, or at current German attempts to export their fiscal model across the eurozone. What does set the British apart is their rhetoric, which has over the years undermined our counterparts’ confidence in our intentions. TheUK has always been a European power and one could just as easily argue that its role has been as a balancer of power in the Continent. That might imply difference, but it also implies engagement on the part of the British government. Conferences have replaced pitched battles, which surely has to be a good thing, and yet too many people think that turning one’s back on the problem is the best solution. Admittedly, White wasn’t condoning scepticism, but his piece certainly normalised their frames.
Finally, today’s Daily Mail marched out a denunciation of French president Nicholas Sarkozy for remarks about the UK not having any industry. This is hardly a million miles from the Mail’s own view, but the link to Sarkozy seemed irresistable. Not as irresistable as the comments further down the same page of the article, where the Mail approvingly noted that several British politicians are talking about the ‘FU’ for the states signing up to the Fiscal Compact (FU here obviously standing for Fiscal Union, tee hee). No mention that this looks to be every member state except theUK.
The EU is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives that have been tried before. Perhaps if we could all discuss that in a more sensible and mature way, we might be able to make it work better still.