Democracy, dissent and the EU

Yesterday, I chaired a very interesting and engaging discussion at Europe House on the subject of “Democracy listens to dissent: what has euroscepticism done for the EU?” I was joined by Tom Moriaty of Occupy London and Gawain Towler, UKIP and EFD spokesman, who both talked about their group’s perspectives and their understanding of the democratic process in general and the EU in particular.

My key interest in the discussion was about opening up new debates around the integration process that try to bring in those voices that are usually excluded: as one attendee noted afterwards, these aren’t voices you normally get to hear. As much as the EU is a broad church (incidentally, a term both Tom and Gawain used to describe their groups too), it is not completely consensual, nor does it move, convoy- style, at the speed of the slowest boat. While that might be understandable, it is not sustainable, so the effort to identify new common ground is valuable for everyone.

As befits someone who has avoided grand theory wherever possible, I think I understand Hegel’s dialectic. Thus, the EU is the thesis and eurosceptical thought is the anti-thesis: only by bringing those together can we achieve a new synthesis that reconciles the two positions and takes us into a new phase of political action [doubtless, a colleague will come along shortly to correct me on this]. As much as it fits with Hegel, it strikes me as common sense that in the face of persistent and embedded euroscepticism the EU needs to try something different.

Two main ideas struck me from the debate.

Firstly, the degree of agreement between the two speakers, despite the very different nature of their groups and their activities. Both agreed on the need for debate and dissent within democratic systems, which in turn requires a level of political knowledge and engagement by individuals: this is indeed a key part of Parliament Week, under whose aegis the event was run. They also agreed that the deregulation of the financial sector was a vital part in understanding the economic crisis and, as a result, requires our attention, both because it compromises our economic well-being and because it has driven an increase in intolerant political and social behaviour (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.).

Secondly, the debate highlighted an aspect of euroscepticism that is often overlooked, namely that sometimes the EU is not the problem itself, but rather a place where problems play out. Thus Tom was very pragmatic about the EU, noting both that it had facilitated the contagion of the financial crisis, but also that the UK would logically work closely with its major economic partners to find solutions. Similarly, Gawain observed that one of the tensions in the EU (especially in the Parliament) is the clash of national political cultures that have very different fundamental conceptions of the role of politicians and political institutions.

Ultimately, I found it heartening that such a thoughtful and constructive debate could take place: the swivel-eyed monsters of many peoples’ prejudice weren’t there and everyone who spoke displayed a level of understanding that has too often been missing in media debates. I can’t pretend that we solved anything, but I hope we have demonstrated the concept of how we might advance towards new understandings.