The structural limits to euroscepticism

After the many months of a fast evolving debate on the European Union here in the UK, recent weeks have seen some of the steam being let out. Partly this is due to the fading profile of the eurozone crisis in news agendas, and partly because everyone is waiting for the next peg on which to hang their statements. The launch of a Tory website to press for a referendum (in a rather coy way, it must be said) is part of the longer game. Even yesterday’s rumblings about JHA opt-(back-)ins don’t seem to have made the weather.

The event that is being waited for is the first set of reports from the Review of Competences, managed by the FCO. While the guidance is clear that this is intended solely as a mapping exercise, it is evident that much politicking will ensue.

However, this hiatus in proceedings is instructive for reflecting on the nature of euroscepticism. As Tim Bale pointed out, the big drop in polling for UKIP this week highlights the need not to over-extrapolate data and the possibility of protest votes going as well as coming. Certainly, from my perspective, the limits to euroscepticism appear more evident than the potential.

This has three parts.

Firstly, euroscepticism is (by definition) negatively defined. It is an opposition, a position against something, rather than for any one thing. This is true of any eurosceptic grouping of any real size: there is agreement on disliking the EU, less so on why they dislike it and very much less on the solution to that dislike. Kippers (as we seem to be calling them now) will protest at this point that this isn’t the case for them, since they advocate withdrawal. True, but that’s still a negative policy, and no UKIP manifesto has even fully developed a plan of what a post-membership relationship with the EU, or the rest of the world for that matter, would look like.

This leads into the second point, namely that there is no one euroscepticism, but rather many. What positive agendas do exist among sceptics cover the full range of ideological positions, from radical right to communist left and all points in between. Indeed, this is the reason for the success of scepticism, that there is always someone who is unhappy with a given aspect of European integration. However, the consequence is that there is still not an emergent alternative pole of consensus for a different way of conducting pan-European relations. This is the myth of the continental altereuropeenistes (‘Another Europe is possible’); the alternative is one of the left, not of the centre, and so will always struggle to gain traction.

And this is then the third point. The EU is a compromise of interests, an entanglement of states. It is designed precisely to frustrate swift reform, so as to reassure all members that they retain some control of their affairs. This makes the Union slow to react, but it also makes it relatively stable.

Elsewhere, I’ve argued that the big danger with euroscepticism has been that it has been ignored, and left to grow ever stronger. The flip side of that is that given the likely lack of speed of internal reform by the EU, there is the chance that the more radical strands of scepticism will loose their momentum, making it easier for the Union to reform and bring back in the more moderate elements. Radical, withdrawalist, ‘hard’ scepticism remains rare, even with the eurozone crisis.

All of this is not a call to sanguinty, nor to say that it’ll all work out. If one thing has been apparent in recent years, it is the lack of positive agendas coming out of pro-European positions. In short, no one seems to have a handle on the situation at present. For the moment that plays into the hands of the Union – the reasons set out above – but it remains a dangerous position in which to stay.