It’s Europe day, so let’s talk Europe

As you are all doubtless aware, today is Europe day, the 63rd anniversary of Robert Schuman’s declaration on the creation of a coal and steel community that was to become the precursor to the current European Union. Everyone knows that, right?

That I even pose the question suggests that the answer is not in the affirmative. Most people don’t know or care and I think that it not only unfortunate, but also potentially damaging.

The traditional ‘solution’ to this lack of knowledge has been to suggest more education, either through schools or public media. I can see the logic of that, but as countless politicians and civil servants can testify, that approach very quickly runs into very deep sand, with charges of propaganda or undermining national identity being thrown around. Even if such charges are ill-founded, the mud has stuck and we are no closer to resolving the matter.

With this in mind, my suggestion here is that rather than focusing on education per se, we should instead concentrate on building discussion and debate across society.

As Albert Tapper writes, sceptics in the UK have too often taken their opposition to the EU to visceral levels – opposing without reflection – while pro-EU elements have felt themselves too constrained to speak out publicly. Thus, too often we end up with a ‘debate’ that is little more than cant and invective, not least because levels of mutual distrust are very high. The old pro-EU approach of ignoring opposition no longer works, especially since the sceptics have recast the debate in terms of ‘democracy’, rather than ‘Europe’.

It is tempting to bemoan the quality of public political debate generally in this country, but I don’t actually think that this is the issue: politicians, the media and publics have proven more than capable, when the occasion arises. The concern here is that the occasion hasn’t arisen, despite what both pro- and anti-EU elements would agree is becoming a critical juncture in the Union’s development.

Days such as today should be opportunities to talk about what we want from European integration and how we can achieve it. That means not only discussion within countries, but also between them. If we have learnt one thing from the eurozone crisis, then surely it is that European states are deeply interconnected, even when they aren’t part of the single currency: what happens in Nicosia matters to Berlin, decisions in Madrid have an impact on London.

In my many years of working on euroscepticism, I have almost never heard of sceptics advocating a policy of autarky, of shutting their country off from the world, a la North Korea. Instead, they talk of international engagement, of participation in the globalising economy, which they see as offering more opportunity than the European one. In essence, that is a difference of level of operation, rather than of fundamental principle and we might do well to consider that there is more in common between sides than we often care to imagine.

However, if we don’t discuss that, then we risk continuing to stumble along, which will serve no-one’s interests at all, least of all the peoples of Europe.