How do eurosceptics position themselves: winning the argument or fighting the system?

The past week has been something of a trip to the past for me. For many years, watching eurosceptics and anti-EU groups was characterised by endless cries that they were fighting ‘the system’, outcasts who had seen the truth and railed against almost impossible odds.

That idea of righteousness that underpins such a worldview is one that I have dealt with before and which still informs much sceptical action. However, its strongest expression in the past couple of years has been in a very different form.

With the rise (in the UK most especially) of a debate on renegotiation and referenda, of building a coalition of national governments for reform in the face of the on-going eurozone crisis, sceptics have switched to an approach that speaks of ‘winning the argument’, of building a structurally-significant position within the wider system to effect policy change. This is seen most clearly in the Conservative party, where anti-EU elements have secured an ever more dominant position, but it is also reflected in the bolder claims that UKIP make as they try to break out of their previously constrained policy and institutional space.

All of which makes this past week the more surprising for its reverting to the old tropes of marginality.

Two events illustrate this rather nicely.

Firstly, Tory MEP Dan Hannan fell into a rather bitter Twitter exchange with Jonathan Portes, head of the NIESR thinktank, which in turn produced a rather vehement blog by the former and riposte by the latter.

The essence of the spat (to use the journalese) was that Hannan felt nothing the NIESR produced (in this case, a report on the beneficial effects of EU migration to the UK economy) could be trusted, since it received a lot of its funding from the European Commission and thus was parti pris. This ‘who pays your wages’ line is an old one, wheeled out on many occasions when there is nothing to say about the material itself: the insinuation speaks to darker views of conspiracy and connivance. Indeed, one only need reflect for a moment that the EP pays Hannan’s wage as an MEP to see that there is a logic problem, to say the least.*

The shallowness of the attack was only reinforced by the Telegraph’s subsequent description of NIESR this week as a ‘distinguished thinktank‘, on the subject of house prices, which suggests that Hannan’s line is more his than anything else. Or possibly careless editing.

The second event was the publication by the CBI of a report on businesses’ support for EU membership, as a trail for their annual conference. Again, the line taken by sceptics was that the CBI ‘would say that’, since large businesses do a work of trade with the continent. While one would hope that an association reflected the views of its members, this seemed to be considered a matter of false consciousness and structural failings. Again, echoes of ‘who pays the piper’ seem to be at work here, as if the CBI has always been unreservedly pro-EU.

As Portes pointed out, and as even a cursory consideration of the CBI would show, neither NIESR nor the CBI are cheerleaders for the EU, but critical participants. The reversion by sceptics to the position-of-weakness stance is surprising, given that those sceptics are in as strong a position as they have ever been.

This is not to suggest that either the CBI or NIESR have found a silver bullet with which to halt eurosceptics, nor that some kind a brief golden age of scepticism is over, but rather that old habits die hard (see Jon Danzig’s piece too). As we move towards the European elections and (potentially) a referendum, sceptics risk exposing themselves to counter-arguments about who funds them and what agendas those funders might have. While there might be an incentive to play dirty, this needs to be balanced against what all sides say is the most important factor: doing what is right for the country. The difficulty will be in deciding whether and how one decides what that might be.


* In the interests of fairness, I should say that after many years of working in this field without any financial support from the EU, I found out last week that I am part of a consortium that has secured funds for an education development package. I don’t expect that my views on the EU will change at all as a result.