Defending the EU

Somewhat embarrassingly (at least as a political scientist), I’ve only just read Matt Flinder’s Defending Politics, occasioned by my award this week. 

What Flinders argues is that the current malaise around politics in general, and democracy in particular, is driven by a lack of understanding  on the part of the general public of the nature of compromise, and the need to recognise that expectation management is as important as endless supply of outputs. In one of his phrases, human rights have obscured human obligations. In brief, our common interests are not necessarily the same as our individual ones.

I have a lot of sympathy for this. Democracy fundamentally rests on engagement and participation and requires us to accept that there is a price to the achievement of our personal objectives that has to be paid in order to secure a bigger benefit of social order and organisation. Thus I might not like having to pay tax, but I recognise that it permits the state to provide me with security, welfare, health, education and a thousand other things that I could not provide for myself.

The astute among you (and even those who’ve only read the title of this entry) will see where I’m going with this.

One surprise in reading Flinders’ book was that the EU is only mentioned once, as an (important) technocratic enterprise, embodying the rise of ‘depoliticisation’, the process whereby politicians will push responsibility out to agencies, in order to avoid having to handle the politics of a given situation.  This strikes me as a misleading representation.

Perhaps the most common issue I encounter when talking about the EU is that people do not understand it: I’ve talked elsewhere of how academic colleagues are rather complicit in perpetuating a view of integration as intrinsically complicated. We can understand this partly resulting from the Union being judged by the yardstick of the state, and using the language of the state, when it’s not a state.

My usual attempt to clarify what the Union is runs something like this: The EU exists because states recognise that they face common challenges, to which they can better respond by working together and thus they create joint institutions.  I’m happy to concede that in the first instance that was a bureaucratic/technocratic exercise, but there has been a continual process of grafting on a system of democratic oversight and legitimacy.

That process is neither complete nor perfect: as Flinders tells us, democracy is never perfect. Politics is never cost-free, but we tend to focus on costs rather than benefits. Indeed, I’d go further and say that a big part of the problem is that in politics (and certainly in the EU) costs tend to be concentrated and benefits diffuse.

When I read and listen to eurosceptics, they often talk about a post-EU world, where there will still be cooperation between European states, but respecting their sovereign rights and national traditions. I find this odd, because that’s what we have now, with the Union. The entire system is based upon the voluntary joining of national action into European action, in a way that spends a lot of time trying to not explicitly exclude individual national preferences. The myth of a unifying and standardising Union is a popular one, but also a wrong one: spend any time looking at an area of EU competence and you will still see a vast amount of national variation.

My big concern about the debate on European integration is that there is not much deep reflection on what integration is and how it works. That’s not a criticism, but an observation: people do not see it as a priority for their lives, in comparison to bread and butter issues, such as jobs, health or welfare. As a result, most people passively witness the discussion between those to whom it is important.

I return then to my first point, that democracies are about engagement and participation. Likewise, I’d argue that the EU is not perfect, but that the best way to make it work better is through constructive participation and discussion. We have to recognise that there will be costs, but also accept that there are benefits, even if they seem marginal to us as individuals.  If we could do that, then perhaps we could find solutions that work better for everyone.