A rock on the beach? unpacking euroscepticism

This week, we held our third annual workshop of the UACES Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism in Brussels. As with its forerunners, the event brought together a wide range of academics and practitioners and there was much enlightening discussion. I’ll come back to some of the other themes in coming posts, but today I want to reflect on an idea that occurred to me during those discussions which might be of help in getting to grips with the idea of euroscepticism.

The theme of the workshop was ‘mainstreaming euroscepticism’, the notion that scepticism is moving out of the periphery of political and social debate into a more central position. It’s fair to say that while we agree this was happening, it was uneven and complex as a process. But it was the initial idea that caught my attention.

If we look back at the development of opposition to the EU, we can see two distinct elements. On the one hand, there are those individuals and groups that have been in action seemingly forever: Jens-Peter Bonde, who’d been doing it long enough to have to retire recently, or CIB, formed in the aftermath of the 1975 referendum. More recently, you have those who kept active in their opposition in the early 2000s, after the single currency membership debates and before the Constitutional Treaty.

On the other, you have the more diffuse and unorganised wave of opposition that has emerged in recent years: all the groups and parties that have started tacking on expressions of dissatisfaction with European integration to their programmes; the rise in negative public opinion and protest voting in elections; the critical media coverage.

To my mind, these are two different things and we might usefully separate them.

The former group are characterised by their righteousness, a belief that they are fighting for fundamental principles that cannot be left to chance. For them, the EU is not only a problem, but the problem. Their opposition thus is an end in itself and we might expect that they are likely to stay active and fighting even in a reformed Union. To take the British case, these are the sort of people who would keep up their opposition even after losing a referendum on membership.

The latter group is something more like grit in the system. They are dissatisfied, rather than deeply opposed, their concerns driven as much by the economic cycle and dissatisfaction with all expressions of authority as by the actions of the Union itself. Thus, the EU is a problem – like the first group – but an expression of another problem. In this case, we might see that as it becomes evident that a Union (changed or not) is not the root cause of the difficulty, so these people will move on to some other thing: their opposition is a means to an end and as such they are more likely to accept a narrative that a reforming Union is meeting their concerns.

If we can accept this distinction then we can drawn some tentative conclusions.

Firstly, much of the current handwringing about the future of European integration is overdone, since most people are not actually that bothered and will buy into a reformist agenda. Witness here there the strength of feeling in the UK for a reformist option in any future referendum. Of course, this supposes that reform is an option, something that European leaders have yet to embrace.

Secondly, it means understanding that interaction with ‘sceptics’ needs differentiation: not all sceptics (indeed hardly any of them) want simple withdrawal or dismemberment, and to treat all in the same way is a likely to radicalise moderates as it is to win them over. The EU has never been good at making this distinction, even though a moment’s reflection would point to the simple observation that just as there are many euroscepticisms, so there are many europhilias: otherwise, the Council and the EP would all agree on everything, all the time (which they patently don’t). In this sense, the reframing of different viewpoints as ‘sceptical’ has been very counterproductive.

Thirdly, it means accepting that some euroscepticism – the permanent sort – is unlikely to be resolved, except in the very long term.

The metaphor I would give here (conscious that one of our workshop speakers warned us about metaphors) is that of a rock on a sandy beach. The rock is fixed and relatively unchanging: it’s part of the landscape. The sand, however, is fluid and changing. As the sea rises and falls, so the sand moves with it, sometimes building up around the rock, sometimes exposing it. I hesitate to extend the metaphor to a more teleological ending, where the sea wears down the rock until it turns to sand, since I’m uncomfortable with such long-term readings. However, it is a useful corrective to accept that we can’t have endless agency and make the world as we would wish it to be.  As Lincoln said, you can’t please all the people all the time, and we would be foolish to even try.