Shell-shocked and half-asleep: Getting snappy about Europe

I must begin by being clear that this post is driven as much by my personal experience of a bad night last night as it is with recent events across Europe. The announcement of a nightmare at some very early hour by one of my children, the calming-get-down to sleep and then my own lying in bed, unable to sleep – all of it provided both the opportunity to reflect and the idea to develop.

As a metaphor, it’s not very complex. Stumbling about in the dark, incoherent mutterings on both sides, a queasy feeling in your stomach as you’re knocked out of your normal routine, the feeling rubbish next morning: my only question mark is who is the child and who the parent in this set up.

Bad tempers abound these days. If it’s not Barroso laying into the Conservatives after his State of EU address, or Bob Crow re-launching his NO2EU campaign, then it’s Grant Shapps telling the UN Rapporteur to get lost, or even the Council Legal Service noting the likely illegality of the financial transaction tax. It’s almost as if no one got a proper break over the summer.

Clearly, a lot of this is contingent behaviour, shaped by local situations: Barroso wanting to raise the profile of his final SOTEU, Crow wanting to do the same at the TUC, Shapps fighting a more general attack on the bedroom tax, the continuing division in the EU about the desirability and functioning of an FTT. But it’s also about the culture of debate that exists.

The key point that I take from all of this is that opinion on European integration (in all its guises) is fractured, across the board. I’m very dubious about claiming the existence of a historical consensus on the value of integration, since there have always been those who have disagreed in either principle or practice, but even to claim that a consensus (for any position) exists is almost impossible. Even the deadweight of the status quo looks less and less realistic.

Some years ago, it was fashionable to talk of “enlargement fatigue”, as if some how the entire resources of the European Union could be worn down by the addition of new member states. That the 2004, 2007 and 2013 enlargements have gone as smoothly as they did should speak to the fallacy of that idea, on-going debate about free movement notwithstanding.

Instead, we now have something more like “future direction fatigue” (inelegant, I know, but I didn’t get much sleep last night…). Everyone thinks things aren’t quite right, but no one is able to provide clear leadership on the issue, let alone sketch out a road map.  The common argument is that we’re all waiting for Angela Merkel to win a new term in office, and there is something in that, but even Germany cannot lead by itself.

Tempers are frayed all round: pro-EU voices are disconnected, while sceptics fight among themselves and the large majority of people struggle to care.

To go back to my opening metaphor, there needs to be some shaking of the sleep from the eyes and firm reassurance given about the non-existence of monsters and the like. It is not to say that there’s no problem, but rather to discuss it in the daylight and work out ways to not let things get like that again. That needs both parties to talk and reflect and work together. Maybe then, everyone can rest more easy.